Anastasia De Waal: Vocational GCSEs are selling our children short

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In the league tables, academic and vocational GCSEs are equivalent. In reality this is simply not the case. The qualifications masquerading as vocational would be better called "occupational", as they appear to be much more about occupying pupils who are not deemed capable of producing the "right" grade in more academic tests.

There is a grave danger that academic study is being reserved for high performers. If this were to escalate there is a real possibility of a reversion to a system akin to the grammar/secondary modern divide – though arguably in less meritocratic a form. That a purportedly equalising Labour government should be the architect of such a divide would be a tragic irony.

As things stand, the pupil who takes (or, as appears to often be the case, is pushed into) a vocational course is at risk of forfeiting a great deal. Although there may be "parity of esteem" in the league tables, there is not parity of esteem in the outside world.

The pupils themselves cannot use this false "parity" with GCSEs, and ultimately, unlike the school and the Government, all they are left with is a learning experience and qualification of questionable value.

A concurrent emphasis on the A*-C benchmark has led to a scenario where schools are encouraging pupils to opt out of academic courses. Researchers from the University of London's Institute of Education have referred to pupils going into vocational qualifications at GCSE as "refugees" fleeing from the academic subjects. With the driving force of the league tables, perhaps they would be better described as "deportees".

What is particularly striking about this entire approach is just how anti-education it is.

Within the system today, the course must not be challenging in case it jeopardises the grade gained. Criticism of the vocational qualifications often comes under fire as snobbery or academic elitism. In fact, the criticism derives from precisely the opposite direction.

The concern centres on the effect that using a pseudo-vocational system as a mechanism for opting pupils out is having on vocational skills' status.

The rhetoric around vocational qualifications at school level is all about raising their status: this could not be further from the truth.

The underlying message which is conveyed through the level of learning and the skills provided in the vocational courses strongly suggests that they have been designed by people who consider "vocational" skills and jobs to be inferior.

The reality is that low expectations are being dressed up as a high regard for vocational education. And, contrary to the purported aim, the introduction of vocational learning at age 14 has been yet another nail in the coffin of vocational skills.

Taken from a Progress report, School Improvement – or the 'Equivalent'

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