Leader: Vocational myth and hard reality

January 19, 2007

Parity of esteem between academic and vocational courses is one of the recurring obsessions of English education. The feeling is less pronounced in Scotland, where the two traditions are more closely integrated. South of the border, however, there is an (often exaggerated) assumption that vocational education enjoys a much greater status in other parts of the world. Educational snobbery is thought to be holding back economic performance in a way that would be unthinkable in countries such as Germany.

The Higher Education Policy Institute's report looks at a very particular aspect of the academic/vocational divide: sixth-form qualifications. But Hepi's research casts further doubt on whether there is real unfairness in the system. While the proportion of those entering higher education with vocational A levels is much lower than that for the academic route, this could be explained by the much lower GCSE grades of vocational students. The link between prior qualifications and degree-level success is well established.

With academic and vocational A levels now producing comparable grades, according to the Hepi analysis, there is no reason to think that admissions officers are exhibiting bias. Although many universities prefer academic qualifications for academic courses, the real disparity occurs earlier in the educational process. If young people and their parents believe that vocational qualifications will be less valuable than the academic variety, the most able will naturally opt for traditional subjects. Until this attitude changes, there will indeed be disparity of esteem (contrary to Hepi's conclusion), but it will not be of universities' making. Perhaps the acid test will come with the vocational diplomas that are on the horizon between the ages of 14 and 19. Education Secretary Alan Johnson singled out the new qualifications for special mention in his grant letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, appealing to universities to engage in their development and adjust their own curricula accordingly. There is an unspoken fear that the diplomas will become another failed experiment in vocational education unless the universities take them seriously. But, as with vocational A levels, they must first attract candidates who will both aspire to and be capable of benefiting from higher education.

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