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.

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