The news that teachers will not be able to advise students to take ‘A’ levels rather than the new vocational diploma qualifications which are being promoted by the government was carried by the Times in a front page article on Monday 14th January. At first sight, this seems like another piece about a ‘fall in standards’: variations on this theme are regularly reported in the Times, and to a lesser extent, The Telegraph. These pieces are often dismissed as curmudgeonly and reactionary growling by commentators who believed the golden age of British education to be the 1950s; or seen as ‘rarefied debate’ which is not relevant to the vast majority of schoolchildren or parents, as the Guardian put it last exam season. There is no doubt that ‘fall in standards’ pieces, as carried in The Times, are often of a reactionary nature, or at the very least of little concern to any parents other than the league-table-gazing middle classes. However, in the case of the ‘promotion’ of A-levels, there is a genuine cause for concern.
Naturally, academics and teachers alike are concerned about the new legislation, which says that schools will not be allowed to ‘unduly promote any particular options’. Teachers are worried about a further incursion into their much-eroded autonomy, as well as concerned about being able to provide the best advice to their students. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has also expressed uncertainty about the worth of the new diplomas. With the news that more and more universities are proscribing lists of ‘soft’ A levels to be avoided (quite apart from the acceptance of the new diplomas), academics are concerned that they will miss out on many bright students, who simply will not be qualified to enter many courses. Dr. Leo Mellor, Fellow and Director in Studies at New Hall, University of Cambridge, was damning of the new proposals. ‘On the one hand, we are told to reach out to students from non-traditional backgrounds; yet this proposal will act to significantly discourage such students by denying them the academic framework needed for entry to Cambridge. It is a deeply regressive piece of legislation.’
We seem to be back with the ‘rarefied debate’ of Oxbridge entrance, which so dominates coverage of education by the right wing press. But there is a crucial difference here: this new legislation could effectively bar huge numbers of working class students from high academic achievement. There will be no problem in private schools, which will not offer new-fangled diplomas until there are no other options (which may be a possibility, given Ed Balls’s refusal to rule out the scrapping of A-levels by 2013). Middle class pupils in state schools, who may be offered diplomas rather than A-levels with no constructive advice from their teachers, will not be affected, as they will be able to receive advice and guidance from their parents. Indeed, a report of November last year by the Nuffield Review clearly stated that middle class families would continue to choose A-levels over the new diplomas, as long as such qualifications were still available. Furthermore, the same report also stressed that A-levels would need to be scrapped for diplomas to be seen as a valuable qualification. In response to this report, the Government released a statement which stressed the fact that top marks in a new diploma would be worth more than three A-levels.
No, the group which will be most effected will be the students who do not have the cultural capital at home, whose parents will not be able to steer them towards the best path to academic success. Of course, supporters of the new qualifications will say that this is missing the point, even perhaps pointing out that this argument is itself mired in snobbery regarding the new qualifications. However, this is false. Whether or not, as a society, we should regard vocational qualifications as highly as academic ones is beside the point; the simple fact is that the extreme scepticism of universities towards these qualifications will undoubtedly create a two tiered system of post-16 qualifications. A survey conducted last year showed that fewer than four in ten university admissions officers saw the new diplomas as a ‘good alternative’ to A-levels. Furthermore, universities will not be obliged to admit candidates with the new diplomas.
I absolutely believe that vocational qualifications should not be seen as second class, but rather simply different from the academic route. But there remains the totally distasteful fact that the forthcoming legislation seems designed to keep working class students in the former, and middle class students in the latter. Whilst Ed Balls may see these new qualifications as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of our education system, it is clear that they are unlikely to become the ‘qualification of choice’ as he also suggested they may become. Whilst this is the case, any move which seeks to prevent teachers from ‘promoting’ the real qualification of choice for universities will only prevent those students from non-traditional university backgrounds from having the fullest choice of options when it comes to university. The final irony in this unfortunate mess is that a spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families defended the decision to run A-levels alongside the new diplomas in terms of choice. Apparently, diplomas ‘could well become the qualification of choice. But because GCSEs and A-levels are long established and valued qualifications, that should not be decided by the government, but rather by young people, schools and colleges.’ Once more the New Labour ideology of ‘choice’ (of course a fairly unsubtle re-working of Thatcherite ‘competition’) is there to provide rhetorical justification for a series of decisions that will only create a more divided and unequal society.
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This post was written by Glyn Salton-Cox