When my son was 15 he announced he intended to study law and be a barrister. “Why law?” I asked. “That’s what clever people do,” he replied.
He changed his mind, but at universities up and down the land there are students struggling and dropping out of courses because they chose what clever people do, often under pressure from their families to pursue academic, rather than more practical, routes to employment.
As the Covid-19 pandemic whips us to our senses, the full extent of our reliance on people who didn’t pursue an academic route has hit us like a hurricane. So this has to be the time, at last, for the UK to put vocational courses and qualifications centre stage. That means recognising them for what they are, not chasing the chimera of parity of esteem with academic ones, as in the past.
T-levels: The latest in a series of quickly forgotten vocational qualifications | Fiona Millar
We don’t need only doctors, lawyers, civil servants, accountants and money analysts. We are crying out for care workers, plumbers, electricians and car mechanics. We applaud manufacturers who change tack to make ventilators and face masks. We are prostrate with gratitude to those keeping some semblance of normality going – the supermarket cashiers, bus and train drivers, and the refuse collectors. Oh, how we miss our hairdressers as we battle to disguise our greying locks.
We’re grateful to the farmers who keep producing, the drivers who deliver our online purchases; postal delivery workers; to the cheerful cornershop owner, the bakers, the ICT technicians who can restore our devices.
Then there’s a new appreciation of the caring services, social workers, nurses, paramedics and, of course, care workers. Parents, struggling to amuse and home educate their children, are now in awe of the nursery and teaching professions.
The big opportunity to boost vocational courses will come in September when the new technical exams, T-levels, are launched, aimed at preparing students for skilled employment, further study, or a higher apprenticeship. The first three will be in design, surveying and planning for construction; digital production; and education and childcare, and a further 22 will follow over the next two years.
Degrees for the rich, apprenticeships for the poor – that’s not a world of parity | Laura McInerney
But, once again, the clever people who designed the new qualification have pegged it to academic A-levels. So T-level grades – distinction, merit and pass – have been given an A-level equivalence, meaning a distinction at T-level is said to be the same as three As or above at A-level.
A clue that the qualification could end up as a pale imitation of A-levels, instead of being valued in its own right, could be in the name: T-levels. Would a shop trying to emulate the global reputation of Harrods want to call itself Tarrods?
In addition, to gain T-levels, candidates must reach a “minimum” standard in maths and English, defined as grade 4 (a grade C equivalent) at GCSE – an academic qualification. In the smallprint it says they can also meet the requirement by passing functional skills qualifications, but the school and college system is set up for GCSEs, so that is what most will be taking.
As long as people can read, write and add up, does it matter whether they have GCSEs in maths and English? We want a tiler who can calculate areas and does not waste boxes of excess tiles, not someone who can solve an algebraic equation. We appreciate hairdressers with an understanding of the effect of different dyes on hair types, we don’t care about their ability to write creatively with an effective use of tone, style and register.
Snobbery about vocational education is denying our children opportunities
So far, not many schools and colleges are taking on the T-level, perhaps for fear that it will implode, like so many vocational initiatives before it. There are concerns about the number of hours students will need to clock up, and whether the extra funding will cover the cost. There are also fears the government will switch funds away from the well-established BTec qualification, with its emphasis on practical skills assessed in the workplace.
But if T-levels fail like their many predecessors – TVEIs, CPVEs, NVQs and GNVQs – it won’t be entirely the government’s fault. A serious barrier to their success is public perception. According to an study by the National Foundation for Educational research last year, parents are hanging on to the idea that the academic A-level is the gold standard against which everything else turns to putty.
It is wrong and it is dangerous, even more so as we start to rebuild a post-coronavirus world. Exam boards are going to save a lot of money this year with teachers doing the bulk of their work for them. Perhaps they could spend the savings on promoting vocational qualifications. Unless someone does, the UK will limp on, clinging to the belief that a person who can do, invent, make and care for others is somehow inferior to a clever thinker. The pandemic has proved that entirely wrong.
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