The campaign to win parity of esteem with A levels for vocational qualifications was in jeopardy this week after an international audience of educationists in Brighton. Ministers from different government departments, and the quango chief responsible for selling the system to parents and pupils, sent out conflicting signals in their addresses to the meeting on the future direction of government policy.
Tim Boswell, minister for further and higher education, warned: "It may be unrealistic to assume there can be complete and identical parity of esteem between qualifications." He thought a modern apprentice would only progress to university if an NVQ was offered alongside "a substantial underpinning of general knowledge as well".
Mr Boswell added that establishing "comparability" between a media studies graduate from a new university and a Sanskrit graduate from an ancient university was "difficult conceptually", although he acknowledged that getting a first from a former polytechnic in a new branch of study "must mean something."
But Ann Widdecombe, minister of state for employment, told the conference that the new modern apprenticeship schemes, which are based on national vocational qualifications and intended primarily to prepare school leavers for employment, will also qualify students for higher education.
"In some cases a modern apprenticeship will open the way to university," she said. Stressing the importance of "parity of esteem", Ms Widdecombe expressed the hope that "even someone with a double first from Oxford would think there was no shame in doing an NVQ".
John Hillier, chief executive of the National Council of Vocational Qualifications, scrupulously avoided using the word "vocational" in his speech. The council has in the past promoted GNVQs as "vocational A levels". But Mr Hillier revealed that the word has now become something of a taboo in NCVQ circles. He confessed that he tried "not to use the word 'vocational'" and preferred to "concentrate on the initials".