The Coronavirus pandemic has taught society many lessons, one of which being our reliance on people who opted for practical, as opposed academic, routes to employment.
This is according to freelance education correspondent, Liz Lightfoot. In an article for The Guardian, Liz stresses that the time has come for the UK to finally ‘put vocational courses and qualifications centre stage’. That involves acknowledging them for what they are and ‘not chasing the chimera of parity of esteem with academic ones, as in the past’.
We don’t just need doctors, lawyers, civil servants and accountants; we desperately need care workers, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and so on. Right now, we’re eternally grateful to the manufacturers producing face masks and ventilators, supermarket cashiers, bus and train drivers, farmers and delivery workers.
We’ve also developed a new appreciation for people working in caring services – nurses, social workers, paramedics and of course, care workers. Parents now tasked with entertaining and educating their children have a newfound respect for nursery workers and teachers.
As Liz writes, there will be a major opportunity to boost vocational courses in September with the launch of T-levels. These new technical exams are designed to prepare pupils for skilled employment, further study or a higher apprenticeship.
Yet, as Liz notes, the people designing T-levels have ‘pegged it to academic A-levels’. T-level grades – distinction, merit and pass – have been equated to A-levels, so a distinction is said to be the same as three As or above.
The very act of calling them ‘T-levels’ could mean the qualification is regarded as a pale imitation of A-levels, Liz warns.
Also, candidates who wish to gain T-levels are required to reach a “minimum” standard in English and maths, defined as grade 4/grade C at GCSE – an academic qualification. The smallprint does explain that they can also meet the requirement by passing functional skills qualifications, though the system within schools and colleges is set up for GCSEs.
Liz asks: ‘as long as people can read, write and add up, does it matter whether they have GCSEs in maths and English?’ We need tilers who can accurately calculate areas and who don't waste boxes of surplus tiles, she argues, not tilers who can solve an algebra equation.
At present, not many schools and colleges are taking on T-levels, potentially out of fear they won’t work. Some are also worried about funding to cover the extra hours students will need to clock up, as well as the possibility that the government will switch funding away from Btecs to the new qualifications.
Yet, if T-levels fail, it won’t be entirely down to the government. A serious challenge to overcome is public perception: a 2019 National Foundation for Educational Research survey found that parents still see A-levels as the gold standard for education.
This is wrong as well as dangerous, particularly as we begin rebuilding when the pandemic is over. Exam boards are set to save a lot of money this year with teachers taking on much of their work for them – maybe they could use some of the savings to promote vocational qualifications. If no one does this, the UK will continue clinging to the belief that people who do, invent, make and care for people are somehow inferior to clever thinking. As Liz concludes, the pandemic has proved that this is entirely wrong.