The government is wrong to devalue vocational qualifications

Francis Gilbert's picture

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 qualifications is 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?

This article first appeared on the Guardian's Comment Is Free website.
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 22/07/2011 - 17:26

The Government's thinking on vocational education is hopelessly muddled. On the one hand it downgrades vocational qualifications, while on the other it gives £180 million to Lord Baker for his chain of University Technical Colleges which offer, guess what, a vocational education to 14-19 year olds. The Government defends the latter by saying that Baker's vocational education will be accompanied by GCSEs in English, Maths, Science and ITC. Does the Government think that schools who offer vocational qualifications don't also do these GCSEs? And GCSE ITC isn't in the EBacc, yet UTCs are expected to offer a GCSE in this subject.

To muddle things further, the Government is encouraging the establishment of "studio schools" - little brothers to UTCs. Studio schools will be free schools offering vocational education on the same lines as UTCs But what will be the effect on established schools of opening new schools which take pupils at age 14? Will the established schools find they lose some of their intake to the UTCs or studio schools? And will the established schools still be able to offer a full range of subjects at Key Stage 4 if they lose some of their cohort?

If the Government is really serious about vocational education and really wants to raise its status then it could consider an updated Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) which did so much to transfrom vocational and careers education in the 1980s.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 22/07/2011 - 17:37

The reason so many newspapers mock media studies is that they don't want media- literate readers who can recognise spin, misleading stats, euphemisms, loaded statements, sensational rhetoric and so on. They don't want readers who can spot speculation presented as truth, when journalists use phrases such as "There is some evidence that...", "It has been suggested that...", "It is alleged...". Or when journalists link legitimate concerns with spurious analysis... Or when the papers take a few incidents as evidence of a breakdown in society, education, society and so on.

No, papers don't want media-savvy readers, and neither do certain politicians.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 22/07/2011 - 21:41

Michael Rosen wrote a brilliant response on the Guardian website which is worth quoting in full here:

"There's a context for all this: compulsory universal education has given more people more education but in so doing it also serves as a sieve, filtering people for the labour market. I'm not sure that that was an intended consequence but what has happened since 1944 is that government keeps using its levers to finetune the sieve, and this has meant gearing schools, courses and teaching for that outcome.

In fact, you can squirrel back down the line to primary schools and infant and even nursery classes and see how children are marked and slotted into categories which they will always find it difficult to escape from. You can go into some early years classes and see 'vocational' education going on alongside 'academic' education.

The question then is do we go on finetuning the system to keep this? If so, why? Or do we try to find ways to break it down?

There's a history to this: for many decades it was thought unnecessary for schools and education as a whole to broaden science and technology education. Many grammar schools in the post-war era were crap at s. and t. and proud of it. 'We do Greek and Latin as well as Winchester here...' People at the top of education wouldn't listen to the argument that what we needed were pathways for all young people to turn their interest in the 'trades' into higher skills and knowledge, should they wish to do so. So, as an example, it was for many years impossible to turn HNC's into degree qualifications. By the time, it did become possible, manufacturing industry had had its teeth kicked in and the incentive for someone to do yet more study in order to not have a job had disappeared.

And yet rationally and humanistically, this remains the only fair and decent principle, as Francis is saying. We must make qualifications 'convertible' and 'equivalent' not because we can in some objective way say that French equals technology or some such but because it is the only decent way we can start to move towards helping every young person get as far as possible in developing their interests, talents, experience, knowledge and skills. At present, all we keep doing is put obstacles in their way by categorising them, and/or telling them that they can't go on any further along this route and/or that no route exists for the likes of you etc."

Francis Gilbert's picture
Fri, 22/07/2011 - 21:47

Since being very critical of some vocational qualifications some years ago, I've learnt a great deal about what is valued as "knowledge" and what is not. Courses which motivate children have to be valued as well as scrutinised carefully for the what knowledge they are fostering.

I think it's important to stress that QCA did appear to become much more rigorous in checking the validity of certain courses as they got used to examining them.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 23/07/2011 - 06:59

TVEI, which was wound up in 1997, did more for vocational education than any initiative since. It was criticised to begin with for wasting money but before it finished the NFER was praising the scheme. The Times Ed in 1995 said this:

"Before TVEI, work experience in schools was relatively rare and the use of information technology was limited. Work experience is now part of almost every child's education and IT is used throughout the curriculum."

TVEI allowed schools and exam boards to devise examinations which suited particular children. For example, at the school where I taught there was a French/Business Studies course. It was certificated by an exam board (probably BTec). And TVEI encouraged innovative GCSE courses like double-option Business and Information Studies which expected pupils to do fieldwork, and allowed them to set up their own businesses (complete with business plan, marketing, finance and so on). This successful and popular course ran for several years before someone decided it wasn't academic enough. So our school dropped the double-option for single-option Business Studies which was theory-heavy and practice-light. Result: boredom (and a lot of money wasted on Business Studies text-books which rapidly go out of date).

As I argue above, perhaps it's time to relaunch TVEI.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 24/07/2011 - 15:51

According to the Daily Mail, 4,500 "Mickey Mouse" courses will face the axe, including a GCSE in claiming benefits. investigated and found that the figures were incorrect and that there is no GCSE in "claiming benefits". And the courses weren't being axed, they wouldn't count towards league tables. The Mail did mention this in their article but readers would not know this from the headline or the first paragraph which read, "Michael Gove sounded the death knell for around 4,500 ‘Mickey Mouse’ qualifications yesterday".

And the Mail in its enthusiasm for finding items in BTec modules which would cause the eyes of DM readers to swivel, highlighted a module in BTec First Diploma in Horse Care entitled "stable management" and said this only comprised "mucking out". But "mucking out" is only one part of one section of one module and comprised more than shovelling horse dung. Readers who wish to check this will find it on page 34 of the 129 page document describing the Diploma.

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