Why the professor called 14-19 diplomas a vocational 'tease'

20th February 2009 at 00:00
The new qualification is already far too academic, she says, which means the work skills components are being pushed out

Diplomas resemble an "obese cuckoo" whose academic nature will oust the more expensive and complex vocational elements from the qualification's nest, according to a leading academic.

Lorna Unwin, professor of vocational education at London University's Institute of Education, described 14-19 diplomas as an educational "tease", masquerading as vocational qualifications when they are sufficiently academic to satisfy the needs of higher education.

Her comments chime with last week's remarks by Professor Adrian Smith, director of science and innovation at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who described the new science diploma as "slightly schizophrenic".

Delivering her inaugural professorial lecture, Professor Unwin highlighted diplomas as symptomatic of Britain's obsession with the education and training needs of the top end of the labour market.

"On the one hand, diplomas hint at being vocational in order to engage young people classified as disaffected or not suited to academic study, while, on the other hand, promising to open the door to higher education and employment," she said.

"Diplomas are a form of obese cuckoo in the education nest, stuffed full of academic requirements which will work hard to push out the more expensive and complex vocational component.

"This cuckoo may well fly, largely due to the hard work of teachers in schools and colleges, supportive employers and willing students. But its chances of survival would be far greater if it was allowed to concentrate on developing its vocational identity."

Professor Unwin said Britain's obsession with professional occupations and the higher education qualifications they demand had resulted in serious neglect of intermediate and vocational occupations. She called for the creation of centres for research and development in vocational practice, which, she said, faced an uphill struggle for recognition. That prejudice was encapsulated in the terms "unskilled" and "low-skilled".

"They reflect the peculiar notion that many occupations are either completely devoid of or contain very little knowledge and technique and, therefore, the workers doing the jobs are themselves equally deficient," she said.

"If we are dismissive of so many occupations, it is not surprising that we are still struggling to build a well-functioning and respected system of vocational education."

Professor Unwin argued for greater autonomy for education providers to deliver their courses. She said that vocational education demands a more sophisticated pedagogy. "It demands that teachers really are expert and up-to-date, and that the equipment is appropriate and of the highest quality. Above all, it is expensive."


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- Draw on workplace learning to create simulated activities in off-the-job settings.

- Create learning opportunities for employees in restricted workplace environments.

- Develop relationships with line managers and other key people in facilitating workplace learning.

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