I visited Fukushima (pronounced Fu-ku-shi-ma with the same stress on each syllable, as in almost all Japanese words) in 1998 as part of a school exchange between Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, where I was head, and four Japanese high schools.

The exchange had started 10 years earlier when Nissan had established its factory in the north-east and I decided that, as the young people of Japan and England probably knew very little about each other, I would start an exchange. I telephoned the Japanese embassy the next day and thus started a life-changing experience for the many young people who subsequently took part in the annual two-way exchange.

All the schools we linked with treated us like royalty and Fukushima was no exception. Festivals took place in the school; we visited a fireworks display in the town like no other I have even seen; we climbed one of the many local mountains together and ate watermelon at the top, cut with a large sword carried to the top by a teacher for that purpose.

I had experienced an earth tremor in Tokyo on the first night of an earlier exchange visit. As I was 12 floors up in a hotel and it was the middle of the night, this was a scary experience. But this was a gentle runble in comparison to the Fukushima earthquake of 2011.

The school presented me with “Fukushima Today and Tomorrow” and I have now re-read the story of the area, with its mild climate and prodigious fruit trees. I am wondering what has happened to the people I met in 1998.

Japan is well prepared for earthquakes. Its buildings are as quakeproof as any in the world and its people prepare more thoroughly for every eventuality than any I have met. Its culture of politeness, where Yes often means No, where crime is minimal and where everything is carefully done to make life as good as possible for everyone else, should mean that things are as ordered as they can be, even in the post-tsunami chaos.

Fukushima is just an hour by shinkansen from Tokyo. My book states that the area used to be known as ‘the back country’, an unsophisticated but dependable producer of rice and electricity for the denser population to the south. The effect on the area of the tsunami and the nuclear explosions will therefore be huge, but the biggest challenge will be for the whole Japanese culture as the people seek to come to terms with this disaster. We can only watch and pray.

Vocational education – we just don’t get it in England

I had a problem the other day with the double glazing on my house, so I phoned the company. The person answering the call consulted her diary and said: “We can send our engineer to you on Friday”. Pleased as I was with this prompt service, I reflected on what qualifications the “engineer” might have. When Friday came, I discovered the answer – a short company training course and then a brief period working with a more experienced “engineer”.

I feel pretty certain that, in Germany for instance, double glazing operatives would not be called engineers. This all encapsulated for me the idea that I have long held that we just don’t understand vocational in England. We love academic, but we relegate the vocational to second best – except, of course, vocations like medicine and law, which are high status jobs and for which you need strong academic qualifications. There aren’t many doctors with GNVQs.

It isn’t the same elsewhere. I recall a Romanian, now a senior executive in London, telling me why he had become an engineer. His father was a doctor, a poorly paid and low status job in Romania when he was a young man, so he went into engineering instead of medicine.

Alison Wolf’s conclusion that too many vocational courses have no real progression is so true. One has only to think of the unlamented GNVQ Part 1 – for which there was never any Part 2! What an outcry there would have been if academic courses had been planned in this way.

Our lack of understanding of vocational is further illustrated by the way that so many people refer to the diploma qualifications as vocational – they aren’t. As Ken Spours and Ann Hodgson have shown so clearly, they are the latest – and best – attempt in a long line of lost acronyms that tried to fill the space between the academic and the vocational.

We need high quality, widely recognised vocational qualifications in England. And we need to recognise that they are not better or worse than academic qualifications – they are just different.

It is particularly disappointing that their value is being undermined in school and college performance tables. The equivalences between some vocational or quasi-vocational courses and GCSEs may have been too generous in the past – and I agree that they were – but this should be a reason to correct the equivalences, not abolish them. No discincentives must be placed in the way of young people doing vocational qualifications if that is what is right for them.

Better still, vocational qualifications should be part of an over-arching baccalaureate structure, with a strong core of learning and plenty of choice of main study. That is one of the reasons why the English Bac isn’t what we need and why Whole Education and others have formed a coalition to Build a Better Bac.