Last night on the The Moral Maze, there was a lot of argument about unemployment. One reason why Britain has such difficulty getting the less qualified into jobs is because the education system has done so badly. And one part of the problem is the dismal approach that has been taken to vocational education (which is so good in Switzerland and perhaps some other Continental countries). Here is an introduction to the failure of vocational education from Michael Gove’s speech at the Policy Exchange on Tuesday:
For a decade now we have steered hundreds of thousands of young people towards courses and qualifications which are called vocational even though employers don’t rate them and which have been judged to be equivalent in league tables to one – or sometimes more – GCSEs, even though no-one really imagines they were in any way equivalent.
Whether they were called Level 2 Btecs or Diplomas, these qualifications and courses lacked rigour, they were not externally assessed, they did not provide a route onto other qualifications, they did not confer skills which employers valued and they were overwhelmingly taught to those students marked down at an early age as under-achievers.
The students were told these qualifications would equal up to 4 GCSEs – but employers regarded them as worth much less than a single GCSE.
Indeed, as Professor Alison Wolf pointed out in her universally-praised study of vocational education, possession of some of these qualifications actually lowered the earning power of students by marking them down as under-performing and under-achieving before they even entered the labour market.
But even though these qualifications held children back they were taught by adults because they counted in league tables. Adults who wanted to keep their positions, and keep their schools’ league table positions, used these qualifications to inflate their schools’ performance in these tables. Adults put their own interests before children.
When the last Government opted for a welcome reform of these league tables – and insisted that English and Maths be included in the five GCSE passes by which schools would be measured – there was a predictable outcry from the usual suspects: this was going back to the 1950s, this was squeezing creativity out of the curriculum, this was denigrating alternative ways of learning, this was creating a new hierarchy of subjects, this was recreating an old hierarchy of subjects, this was unfair on students whose backgrounds did not conform to bourgeois expectations and so on…
But while adults complained, at least more children were taught to acquire qualifications which mattered. It was a step forward – but it was still progress made on fundamentally unsound foundations.