Successes less celebrated

Wed 13 Aug 2014

Don’t you just hate it when you catch yourself doing something which you get cross with other people for doing?  I’ve had to give myself a significant telling off for precisely that reason.  I haven’t been making sufficient of a fuss about VQ Day.

This Thursday, every news bulletin on every channel and every newspaper, local and national, will carry interviews with, and pictures of, smiling students waving the piece of paper which confirms their A-Level results are taking them to the further study or career of their dreams.  A week later, similar scenes will be enacted by those who’ve been taking GCSEs.  These are big national events which signpost us through the year like the Summer Solstice, the January sales or the first day of the football season.  So, to keep you informed, the celebrations for the almost a million young people taking vocational qualifications this year will be.. will be..

Well, actually, VQ Day as it’s called (nothing to do with victory in the last war) took place on 4th June.  It’s quite possible you haven’t heard of it.  A quick Google search suggests that only some of the education sector trade press and The Guardian (of course) felt the event worthy of note.

Surprising as it may seem, nearly fifty per cent of those studying at Level 3 (i.e. on a par with A Levels) are pursuing vocational qualifications.  That figure has been rising steadily in recent years while the popularity of A Levels has also been falling.  The universities are waking up to this.  Currently, potential students with strong vocational qualifications are significantly less likely to be accepted by a “top” university than their A Level holding counterparts.  Former Education Secretary, Lord Kenneth Baker, has said, “The jobs market is now saturated with degrees, and yet somewhat lacking in high quality technical and practical qualifications.  This issue will come to a head in the coming years, as an ageing population and retiring workforce will increasingly change the employment landscape.  By 2022, 90% of the most in-demand job areas will be accessible through technical, practical and vocational learning.”

So why is it that we don’t have the same degree of hoopla and celebration for vocational success as with A Levels and GCSEs?  There are three essential problems here.  Firstly, there are only a very few MPs, newspaper editors and television executives who have had first-hand experience of anything other than the academic route.  They went to university, their parents went to university and their children will go to university.  Vocational education is an unknown country to them; FE Colleges are still thought by too many to be places where, “other people’s children go.” 

Secondly, many universities, know what they know.  They are familiar with an A Level intake and in many cases, don’t really understand what “other” qualifications mean and how rigorous they are.  Thirdly, not everyone within the sector has made enough of a fuss, has not loudly enough trumpeted the achievements of the bright, energetic, creative and yes, learned people we work with.

So here’s a promise.  Next year we’re going to make it a real event.  Next year we will try even harder to encourage the cameras and the journalists to come to see young people, flushed with success as they open their envelopes and see that their hard work has paid off.  Next year we will do better, try harder, shout louder.  Most certainly the students deserve it; more importantly, the wider country needs to wake up to the fact that if our brightest and best are not told about vocational training and education, if they’re not given the information they need to decide if it is for them, our economy and society will not have the human tools needed to thrive in the twenty-first century. 

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