Leading article: A-level grades are not the only concern

Vocational training remains fragmented, inconsistent and poorly understood

Related Topics

The impact of the Coalition's shake-up of higher education is starting to be felt. The proportion of top-marks A-levels has dropped for the first time in two decades following a crackdown on "grade inflation". And with students facing up to £9,000 of annual fees from September, applications to English universities are significantly lower than last year. Both are a step in the right direction – but only if non-academic education and training can take up the slack.

After year upon year of ever-improving results – even as criticisms of school-leavers' educational standards grew sharper – the entire A-level qualification system was losing credibility. That the number of papers meriting an A or A* has finally fallen is therefore a landmark moment, and one that can only be welcomed. That said, a single 0.4 per cent drop from one year to the next will mean nothing if results immediately swing back upwards again; 2012 must be the start of a trend if the dip is to be meaningful.

Lower grades will, of course, mean that fewer conditional offers of university places will be met. But dire predictions of thousands of prospective students missing out should be treated with caution. Many of those just a whisker under their required grades may well receive an offer anyway; and with all of this year's students suffering the same "disadvantage", it is hard to justify claims of unfairness.

In fact, the competition for university places is less intense than usual this year: applications are currently down by around seven per cent as potential students weigh the benefits of a degree against the debts they will rack up in the process. But with universities across the spectrum still over-subscribed, the Coalition's controversial trebling of tuition fees does not appear to have devastated the intake in the way that doom-mongers predicted, even taking account of double-dip recession and high youth unemployment.

Efforts to allay concerns that higher fees would turn Britain's universities back into the preserve of the wealthy few also appear to be working. Although it is too soon to be complacent, admissions group Ucas has indicated that school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds are not disproportionately represented among those choosing not to apply.

All well and good. But there is so much more to be done before the Government can rest on its educational laurels. Indeed, much of the progress so far has focused only on changes in schools and universities. Parallel advances have not been made in developing the skills of those who will be squeezed out of a more rigorous academic system.

In fairness, there have been some efforts to address Britain's long-standing weakness when it comes to vocational training – the £1bn "jobs fund" to help pay for short-term placements for young people, for example, and the creation of an extra 200,000 apprenticeship places. But the numbers are still small by comparison with the size of the challenge.

There is huge pent-up demand among employees, particularly given the perilous economic conditions. According to the National Apprenticeship Service, July saw a record-breaking 100,000 applications, seven for every vacancy even with available places also at an all-time high. But the Government-commissioned Holt review concluded that many companies still view placements as suitable only for the "shop floor".

For all the tweaks, vocational training remains fragmented, inconsistent and often poorly understood. Meanwhile, employers routinely complain of their inability to find staff with the expertise they need. Attempts to tighten up academic education are laudable enough. But they are only half of the equation.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Java Developer - web services, XML and API

£330 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Lond...

Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Reading: Maths Teacher required to teach Furthe...

Primary teachers required for schools in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers requ...

Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

£18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey has already been blamed for a rise in the number of callouts to the fire brigade for people trapped in handcuffs  

When most porn is packaged for men, is it any wonder women get their sexual kicks from erotica?

Justine Elyot

Daily catch-up: low pay, E and non-E online, and the pointlessness of chess

John Rentoul
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style