The government is wrong to devalue vocational qualifications

22 July 2011
The Guardian
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Vocational courses help students develop key skills employers are crying out for. League tables should reflect this

The government’s decision to drastically downgrade the value of vocational qualificationsis deeply troubling for teachers like me, and must be sending many schools and colleges into a tailspin of despair.

At the moment over half a million teenagers are studying vocational qualifications, which count as the equivalent of a number of GCSEs for the purposes of the school league tables. For example, students doing courses like a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) diploma in building and construction will gain the equivalent of a number of GCSEs – sometimes as many as six – if he or she passes the course, and this will correspondingly count on a school’s league table results. The government is now saying that such courses will only count as one GCSE, despite the fact that they occupy far more curriculum time than your average GCSE, involving as they do constant “on-the-job training and assessment”.

Vocational qualifications have been set up so that they develop things like students’ numeracy and literacy skills, their ability to problem-solve and to communicate effectively. These are all key skills that employers are crying out for. Furthermore, vocational qualifications aren’t “cowboy” qualifications, snuck in by the backdoor to boost school league-table results; they were scrupulously monitored by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority so that rigorous standards imbued every course. Vocational qualifications were the equivalent of a number of GCSEs with some justification.

Sadly, though, this government clearly doesn’t value the 4,827 vocational qualifications on offer: what this announcement effectively means is that vocational qualifications are going to be junked by the vast majority of schools and replaced with more “respectable” but much less engaging academic courses.

This is a tragedy for all our young people because many teachers increasingly feel that a lot of our “academic” GCSEs and A-levels, whose content and approach were developed in the Victorian era, are just not suitable for our pupils anymore. Even our most “academic” students find them offputting. I see this first hand through teaching an “old-fashioned” qualification, English literature, and a more vocational one, media studies. Contrary to the myths generated by ill-informed journalists and politicians, media studies is a rigorous and demanding subject, which not only develops “academic” skills such as analysis, but also gets students actively learning because they make their own films, newspapers, blogs and websites. In stark contrast, with English literature I am increasingly seeing students who resent reading literature that seems to them hopelessly out of date and irrelevant – despite my best efforts to prove otherwise. The vast majority of students dutifully jump through the hoops set for them by the exam, but are they are really learning much? I worry not. They’d all learn a lot more if they were doing a vocational subject such as media studies – and they’d enjoy it.

Alison Wolf, the government’s expert on the issue, said in her review of vocational education: “Good vocational programmes are … respected, valuable and an important part of our, and any other country’s, educational provision.” If the government’s own expert thinks this, why are they devaluing these vitally important qualifications?

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