Sunday, 5 February 2012

Gove wrong to downgrade vocational courses

At the risk of sounding like a latter day Mrs Dale I’m worried about Michael; Education Secretary Michael Gove that is.

Since he took office in 2010 he seems to have approached the project of reforming Britain’s schools at something like ramming speed. Free schools, bringing back Latin lessons and even sending a copy of the King James Bible to every school in the land all hovered up valuable publicity for the ambitious Mr Gove.

Perhaps this is all par for the course, education secretaries tend to flash across the political hemisphere like meteors, but now he has moved out of the realms of self publicising eccentricity into an area where he could cause lasting damage to the life chances of millions of students.

Michael Gove has given his support to downgrade the value of 3100 vocational courses, previously courses in horse care and hairdressing were counted as being equivalent to four GCSE’s, from 2014 though only around 70 vocational courses will be treated in this way.

The rationale behind the move prompted by a report on vocational education in the UK prepared by Professor Alison Wolfe is that the old system created ‘perverse incentives’ for schools to use vocational courses to boost heir position in the league tables. As a result many schools may well cut back on the number of vocational courses they offer even though take up has grown exponentially in recent years from around 15,000 in 2004 to575, 000 students in 2010.

Professor Wolfe told the BBC this week that too many students were taking qualifications that were ‘getting league points, but which when they went out into the labour market they found nobody actually valued’ schools were, she said, ‘essentially lying to kids and that’s a terrible thing to do.’ Revising the number of vocational courses that can be counted as equivalent to GCSE’s would, she went on to say, mean they would have exactly the same status as other more academic forms of study.

The report, according to Education Secretary Gove has ‘laid bare’ the ‘weaknesses of the current system. He goes on to say that ‘for far too long the system has been devalued by attempts to pretend all qualifications are the same.’ So with the sort of logic that deals with a chip pan fire by burning down the rest of the house Mr Gove has decided to ‘solve’ this problem by devaluing every vocational course; way to go Mikey.

The ink was hardly dry on the report before criticisms of its conclusions began to pour in, engineering employers were unhappy that the popular and well respected Engineering Diploma, previously worth five GCSE’s will now only be equivalent to one. Christine Blower of the NUT said the proposed reforms ‘are likely to exacerbate the vocational academic divide.’ Chris Keates of the NASUWT questioned the wisdom of downgrading qualifications taken by so many young people saying that doing so would ‘remove qualifications employers value, narrow the curriculum even more and lead to disaffection amongst young people.’

Even the Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg, not exactly a socialist firebrand, got in on the act saying that whilst he agreed with government attempts to improve the standard of vocational education on offer saying that ‘we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ Quite so, although in this case Michael Gove seems intent on throwing out the baby, then the bathwater before sending the bath itself clattering down the stairs after them both for good measure.

It would be unwise to suggest that all vocational courses are either perfect or equal, often when they are designed by educationalists with little experience of industry, but this assault on vocational education as a whole is nothing short of vandalism. Not least because it fails to address the real problem; the idea that schools can or should be ranked in a league table.

This week Michael Gove branded opponents of academies as ‘trots’, implying they put ideology ahead of common sense. I can’t help but feel there is more than a little projection going on here.

If anybody is gripped by an inflexible ideology it is Mr Gove, and like all ideologues he alternates between a smug conviction that he is always right and hysterically paranoid denunciations of anyone who dares to question him. Time and tide have moved on, vocational and academic learning aren’t opposed armed camps, they are parallel tracks to success with the connecting door between the two propped open.

That Michael Gove either can’t or won’t accept this and persists with an attempt to return Britain’s schools to some imagined golden age of mortar boards, Latin prep and Victorian hymns is a shocking dereliction of his ministerial duty.

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