Bahram Bekhradnia: There is no bias against vocational A-levels

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Addressing the 2004 annual meeting of the Higher Education Funding Council, its then chief executive Sir Howard Newby said that the low level of participation in higher education by those taking vocational qualifications "really isn't good enough".

He was referring to the fact that around 50 per cent of those with vocational A-levels go on to higher education, compared with nearly 90 per cent of those with GCE A-levels. This was an expression of a concern, often voiced, that vocational qualifications don't have parity of esteem with academic qualifications, and that universities don't treat holders of Level 3 vocational qualifications fairly when considering them for entry.

However, until now these concerns have been based on belief rather than evidence. The Higher Education Policy Institute is today publishing some research that will change that.

First, let me be clear - "parity of esteem" is not a simple concept. We take it as a given that there are courses in some universities where only an academic preparation will serve as an entry qualification - the physical sciences, medicine and so on. So there is no suggestion that universities should be condemned for distinguishing between vocational and academic Level 3 qualifications in all cases.

But there are many courses that are not like this, which a student of the required ability who has done a vocational course should be as capable of taking as one who has taken an academic course. Are such students unfairly discriminated against?

Well, if vocational Level 3s are not of the same standard as GCE A-levels, perhaps universities would be justified in looking less favourably on those who have them. We compared the GCSE grades of students who took vocational and academic Level 3s, and found that those with vocational Level 3s have significantly lower achievement in GCSE than those who do A-levels. While GCSEs may not be a perfect measure of general ability, they are a reasonable predictor of success of those taking both vocational and academic routes, so they are a fair measure for this purpose.

But, in spite of their lower GCSE achievement, those taking the old vocational GNVQs - now replaced by vocational A-levels - achieved similar grades on average as those doing A-levels. If there was a general perception that the two qualifications were not of a similar standard, that would be understandable, and probably correct. And that would explain any lack of parity of esteem that may have existed.

We also found that this disparity has more or less disappeared with those taking the new vocational A-levels. In terms of grades awarded, they are as rigorous as A-levels. So universities would not be justified in regarding them as inferior qualifications.

But they do not do so. Grade for grade, students with vocational qualifications go on to higher education broadly as might be expected, given their ability, and broadly in line with the progression of students with weak A-levels. They apply less frequently, but they apply no less frequently than those who have taken the academic A-level path who have a similar GCSE background.

The disparity in rates of progression between vocational and academic students has been used in various contexts to show the problems faced by students taking vocational qualifications. Our analysis does not actually indicate a problem - at least, not the one often cited.

Any apparent problems can be explained to an extent by the varying achievements of each group. But there is a different problem that a focus on non-participation of vocationally qualified pupils may obscure: non-participation by pupils with A-levels. In numerical terms, pupils with A-levels who do not go on to higher education are far more significant than the number of vocationally qualified pupils who don't. If we want to widen participation, that is where our focus should be.

Care is needed in interpreting our findings. This study does not shed light on the nature of the course or institution. It looks at macro level, not at the details of students' experiences.

Many courses at many of the most prestigious universities are explicit that they will only accept Ucas points earned by GCE A-level. Depending on the course, that may be reasonable. But it is essential therefore that pupils should be properly advised post-GCSE about the implications of the different routes open to them - and in particular that taking vocational A-levels will, in effect, close off certain options in the future. It is also essential, if they have the aptitude, that they are given the opportunity to take GCE A-levels, and are not forced to take vocational A-levels because of a lack of choice.

The writer is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute