Telegraph – vocational learning is “Mickey Mouse”. Or is it?

The Telegraph today is having another go at whipping up a panic about what it is pleased to call “Mickey Mouse” qualifications. Its latest rant starts by telling us that “almost 9 in 10 teenagers sat qualifications in subjects such as call centre skills, cake decorating, health and safety and hazard control”.

If however you can bear to reach the end of the article you discover that call centre skills was taken by exactly 9 pupils and cake decorating by 40. And for completeness sake, 5 sat drinks service and 11 sat party decor. Hardly enough you might think to shake the examination system to its foundations.

The real aims are pretty transparent though. The first is to smear all vocational learning as second rate. The second is to make cheap party political points by quoting the insufferable Chris Skidmore – incidentally one of the “Britons are lazy” quintet on how “Labour lied to a generation”!

The first thing to hang onto in this debate is that there is a place for practical learning and learning in a work context. We have struggled over many years to find a model for this kind of learning for 14 to 16 year olds but we do have to keep trying. English education has been hamstrung by the conviction that academic learning is somehow “better” and should be valued more highly. It was to try and deal with that prejudice that we got into the business of equivalences – a laudable attempt to give equal value to different kinds of learning.

We have to recognise though that this hasn’t worked, especially when combined with the massive pressure of league tables and floor targets. The incentive to clock up league table points in any possible way has been with us for some time, starting, I think, with the infamous Thomas Telford IT course. And of course it has been demonstrated beyond a doubt that it is academies that are more likely to seek to abuse the system in this way.

Just to confuse the picture a bit more, the same government that is trying to sell us the EBacc as the answer to all our problems, is at the same time promoting University Technical Colleges and is about to allow 14 to 16 year olds to attend FE colleges full time. In both of these vocational courses will be central to the curriculum.

And if you look at the qualifications that will be included in the league tables after 2014, they include plenty of vocational courses. You’ll still find courses in Hair And Beauty, Hospitality and Retail available to all – has the Telegraph noticed I wonder?

If there is going to be any kind of sensible way forward we first have to get rid of the snobbery that says that learning a trade is somehow inferior and you’re a failure if you haven’t got to a Russell Group university. Then we have to stop treating the issue as a political football.

Finally we have to find ways of making sure that every pupils has access to a core academic curriculum but can also pursue their particular strengths and interests. It’s not dumbing down to recognise that kids are different and want to do different things. Nor to understand that we need in our society people doing all kinds of jobs with all kinds of different skills. And probably a good idea that car mechanics, builders, plumbers and the rest have actually been trained to do their job.

By all means keep all options open as long as possible and make sure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have as much opportunity as the more fortunate. And, yes make sure the courses and qualifications are challenging, appropriate and supported by employers.

But that’s not the same as driving everyone down an identical narrow academic route. Nor is it the same as sneering at practical learning and at the young people for whom that represents the pathway that they have chosen.

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2 Comments on “Telegraph – vocational learning is “Mickey Mouse”. Or is it?”

  1. Brenda Purchase says:

    Distortion is the Telegraph’s tool of choice whenever commenting on collective endeavour. In this case the state trying to ensure as many people as possible gain a useful educational experience. Thanks for exposing the Telegraph’s elitist mindset to all who want to see. I comment only on the first part of your three part prescription to treat the malady of societal snobbery directed at the skills agenda. This debilitating disease (I speak as a former toolmaker who had to become a politician to make any progress, if progress is the right word) is best diagnosed not just as a simple academic vs skills approach, but in the context of our class-based market economy, and recognising that the way to the top and disproportionate rewards is not by gaining a technical education and being brilliant at engineering, construction, medicine or other technical careers, but being born to the right parents or managing to climb the greasy pole to a job in the city. Qualified technical people are often academics and of course teachers are often qualified in a technical discipline, so I argue the roots of this lie deeper than skills vs academic Until we accept that over-rewarding birth and brown-nosing is a major factor in the observed indifference, even contempt, towards the skills agenda, the Telegraph and their likes will continue to make mincemeat of our efforts. Right down at the bottom of the heap the semi-skilled, the unskilled bear the brunt not just of the taunts of the Telegraph but also the torment of starvation wages. The question is how do we promote the status of skilled and technical people generally when that very status is everywhere re-enforced by our highly stratified, snobby class system and where the height of working class ambition, as perceived by the ruling classes, is to be ‘tuppence looking down on a penny’. Maybe this is the question Jon Cruddas and his team should be addressing rather than worrying about patriotism. Ken Purchase Date: Mon, 20 Aug 2012 11:26:35 +0000 To: brendapurchase@hotmail.co.uk

  2. Gabriel Gidi says:

    It is also important that as we reform the vocational qualifications we deal with the ridiculous idea of equivalences especially the courses said to be equivalent to four GCSEs. If we are to take away the argument made by snobs that these qualifications are ‘mickey mouse’ we should make one vocational qualification equivalent to one GCSE. You are right to say that these qualifications are important both for the students and for the economy. We need builders, plumbers and other trades. The best way to prepare people for the trades is for students to get qualifications in school that allow them to go in these fields. Those who are academic should be encouraged to pursue academic studies while those who like to work with their hands are encouraged to take vocational courses without being told that they are getting ‘mickey mouse’ qualifications.