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A welcome revival

IT WAS the luckless Conservative education secretary John Patten who first coined the term "vocational A-levels" - a notion that was firmly stamped on by the Tory right, obsessed as ever with the traditional gold standard.

David Blunkett's decision to revive the idea is something rather different. Over the past decade, GNVQs have proved their worth as a route to higher education or a job - while at the same time A-levels have become more relevant to work. The longstanding division between vocational and academic study is already eroding, and Blunkett's speech this week will accelerate the process.

With stronger standards emerging for the GNVQs at level 3, there is less reason for universities to distinguish them from academic A-levels. Nor are most employers hung-up on past traditions; they are chiefly interested in what works.

Yet the mythologies linger on. Mr Blunkett told the Further Education Funding Council's annual conference in Birmingham this week: "I am bedevilled by those who do down the vocational qualifications. They have to wake up to the fact that this is what goes on in other countries."

The package of school, collge and workplace training reforms unveiled this week (see FE Focus) should go a long way towards giving students who choose vocational routes the reward and status they deserve.

At higher levels, however, Mr Blunkett is in danger of losing the plot. He is rightly anxious about the A-level students who do not go on to higher education, and his answer is a new two-year foundation degree with "employability" training and specialist skills. This could be converted into an honours degree with 15 months additional study. But laudable though this seems, it risks duplicating a wide range of equivalent two-year qualifications already in the pipeline, from the new college diploma to the associate degree to be launched in FE colleges this September. These degrees are specialist and employment-driven; colleges are already collaborating with employers.

The foundation degree needs its own raison d'etre - and must be made as attractive to adult returners as to school-leavers. Last year Tony Blair set a 10-year target: half the population to be graduates by 30. Let's hope the new qualification is not merely a device for hitting this bulls-eye.

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