Does it matter that "vocational learners" progress to higher education at about half the rate of those on academic programmes? If access to higher education for vocational and academic learners alike fairly reflects "ability" - as demonstrated by GCSEs and post-16 study - then perhaps it does not. This is broadly the view of the Higher Education Policy Institute in its recent pamphlet Vocational and Academic Routes to Higher Education . On the eve of the introduction of the new diplomas for 14 to 19-year-olds, Hepi raises some important issues.
However, we need to ask different sorts of questions. Why, for instance, have we failed for so long to offer a route to educational achievement for more than one third of young people? The technical schools envisaged by the 1944 Education Act did not take hold; Harold Wilson revealingly thought comprehensive schools should become "grammar schools for all"; the Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education that replaced General National Vocational Qualifications were criticised by Ofsted as "neither seriously vocational nor consistently advanced".
As AVCE edged closer to A levels, so anecdotal evidence suggests that learners in schools and colleges chose Btec qualifications instead. Now the AVCE is being replaced by "applied A levels". Every vocational initiative from the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative in the 1980s to the AVCE has failed to live up to expectations. We have consistently failed to get the best out of many young people.
Hepi believes the problem is parity of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications, and that parity depends on an "equivalence of difficulty". A levels, of course, provide the reference point for difficulty. But the problem for vocational qualifications is not parity of esteem, but esteem itself. Vocational qualifications will succeed only if they are valued in their own right. And if we continue to measure all educational achievement against a one-dimensional A level standard defined by its "difficulty", we will thoroughly deserve our place near the bottom of any international league table for the education and training of 17-year-olds. As for the targets for raising skills at all levels recently announced in the Leitch review, best to forget them.
To broaden the base of educational success we will have to think differently about ability, learning and achievement. Ability is not an undifferentiated lump of "intelligence", whether measured by IQ tests or examination success. It would be a brave person who claimed that an A level in physics measures the same ability as an A level in English, or even that there is an "equivalence of difficulty" between all A level examinations.
It is even less likely that such claims will be made for degree-level study.
We need more, and better, ways for learners to register achievement. We have noted differences among academic learners. There are bigger and more significant differences among vocational learners than there are between academic and vocational ones. Indeed, the categories "academic" and "vocational" are increasingly shaky. One measure of difficulty will not fit all.
The underlying problem is that we have over-emphasised the role of selection in education - filtering students for higher education and the workplace - and paid too little attention to its role in enabling, celebrating and making the best use of achievements. The important point is not that vocational students have weaker qualifications than academic students, but that they are achieving at Level 3. Therefore, there ought to be more and better opportunities for them to build on those achievements in higher education. This calls for changes in the curriculum in higher education as well as in schools and colleges. Someone with relatively weak A levels (and performance at GCSE) already finds higher education a more friendly and familiar place than someone of "equivalent ability" with vocational qualifications.
This is not just about post-16 learning. Mature learners entering higher education with professional qualifications are often confronted with unfamiliar teaching and learning styles or the need to negotiate progression on a case-by-case basis rather than following a clear set path.
It is time we put some flesh on the bones of the universal commitment to lifelong learning. The fact that the vast majority of apprentices will go into employment and not to university is fine, but we need to give them the opportunity to progress from the workplace to higher education over a lifetime. Further and higher education has to be an open system that can build on different kinds of learning, enabling people to enter and re-enter the system at different points and for different purposes as their needs, interests and abilities develop.
Kevin Whitston is head of widening participation at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.