Bridging the divide between academic and vocational qualifications

Dave Nicholls and his wife with their Master's certificates from Marjon University CornwallDave Nicholls is a secondary school teacher and deputy head of year at Newquay Tretherras School in Cornwall. He teaches business studies and a number of vocational subjects. As part of his recent Master’s in Education, completed at Marjon University Cornwall, he investigated the unequal treatment of vocational qualifications compared to A-Levels. This included how the subjects are considered by higher education providers.

His research focused on the views and opinions of students studying at post-16, the teachers who deliver the qualifications, and university entry requirements. Dave’s dissertation highlighted the inequality which still exists in the system, he tells us more…

I have no doubt that the recent announcement from Boris Johnson relating to the academic/vocational divide is timely, if not overdue. The Wolf Report in 2011 set out to level the playing field. This was to make BTEC and OCR subjects more inline with their academic counterparts and, theoretically, provide students with equal opportunities regardless of which route of study they chose to pursue. Sadly, as evidenced by Mr Johnson’s announcement, whilst the aim was true, I cannot help but feel that it fell far from on target.

The academic/vocational divide has never been more evident. Universities still require inflated grades from vocational subjects on the grounds of a lack of parity. Schools and colleges still refer to these qualifications as equivalents, and of a lower academic standard than the A-Level. Mr Johnson himself stated that it was time to end the “pointless nonsensical gulf between the so-called academic and so-called practical side of education”, which is an honourable gesture (albeit remarkably similar to Michael Gove, the then education secretary, in his preface to the Wolf Report). Sadly, this an issue which I see too often and still faced by students in the current system. This is despite ongoing reform, the introduction of exams into a once purely coursework-based qualification, and UCAS points brought more in-line with their A-Level counterparts (A*=Distinction*, A=Distinction, C=Merit, E=Pass as regards points).

Within this current system, around 177,600 students are studying Post-16 vocational qualifications. These students either have the idea of progressing onto university, or into employment, depending on their field of interest. However, these students are simply not afforded the same opportunities as those who choose to study an academic route, despite this ongoing reform. 79% of 18-year-olds achieving A-Levels will achieve a further qualification by the time they are 25, compared to just 42% of those who take the vocational route. Universities then compound the issue by setting higher entry requirements for vocational qualifications, compared to A-Levels. For example, The University of Kent require BBB from A-Level students, compared to DDM (equivalent of AAC) for vocational students to enter onto their Health and Social Care degree. Cambridge University even go so far as to deny entry outright to Level 3 vocational qualifications, accepting only Level 4 and 5 (degree level qualifications for entry onto a degree).

The effect of this inequality has trickled down to student level, with young people now using the term BTEC to describe something which is of a lower quality than something else. The conclusion we can draw is simple in my opinion. Vocational qualifications are in need of overhaul and reform, and whilst it is admirable that Mr Johnson wishes for them to be perceived as equal to academic qualifications, there is a lot to do.

The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of skills-based qualifications, and the reliance we have on professions such as builders, plumbers, mechanics, and the like. Whilst as a society we might now be starting to value these professions as they should be, I still see an inherent snobbery towards qualifications which are designed to equip students with the skills to move into them.

It is time for something to change, and for us as a society to finally assign real value to vocational education.

Dave Nicholls, MA Education, Marjon University Cornwall Class of 2020.

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