The Value of Qualifications and the Question of Parity of Esteem.
The theme of this piece is as relevant to the plumbing profession as it is for all other vocational and technically orientated qualifications and occupations. It addresses the general perception that these qualifications are second-class and of low status when in fact they are strategically important subjects and occupations. This in turn has created a view that colleges and their programmes are second class expressed in an attitude that if you cannot get into university then the second next option is a college; this perception has persisted ever since the establishment of the sector. It is a depressing situation as the staff in colleges are committed professionals and deliver key subjects in the technical, commercial and vocational disciplines.
One recurring issue in qualifications reform is how to express and demonstrate equality between the so-called academic and vocational awards i.e. using some educational jargon ‘parity of esteem’. This country is almost alone in being preoccupied with this notion/concept but it figures significantly in any debates or proposed reforms of the qualification frameworks. Other countries with successful vocational education systems do not see it as an issue because they recognise that the qualifications are intended for different people with different occupational intentions and need to be fit for purpose and are therefore seen as possessing equal value and status. Sadly this country sees it differently preferring to rank all the awards and extol the superiority of academic awards and degrees. Just read any of the recent reports and reviews e.g. Richards and Perkins. Reforms always seem to strive for simplicity and convenience with regard to vocational qualifications coupled with an avoidance of any significant reform to the academic awards e.g. GCSE and ‘A ‘levels.
Also the constant reference to the importance of university education does not help the debates and Career information, advice and guidance which emphasises that university education is the best option for school/college leavers is not being impartial but is misleading. This inevitably creates the idea of first and second-class awards and the constant use of the term parity of esteem perpetuates and reinforces a false and unchallenged assumption of inequality between the routes and resultant qualifications. What is required once and for all, is a long term commitment to creating qualifications that are fit for purpose and which recognise the defining aspects of each set of qualifications for their respective aims. Each route is vastly different and requires different techniques/approaches in such areas as assessment and curriculum content and emphasise that value of the qualification that is fit for purpose and is relevant for the skills, knowledge and competences required in the workforce. The idea of routes in itself is not a negative thing as long as the value of each route and automatic negative value judgments are not made about the content or the ability of the students and their vocational achievements on leaving compulsory education. The routes must allow fair and easy progression and transition if the learner’s aspirations or competences change.
The concept of parity of esteem should be banished to the dustbin of history in the debates on qualifications and instead the focus should be on their ‘fitness of purpose’. In fact I would argue that the obsession with the concept of parity of esteem has held this country back from developing an effective system of vocational education and training. One essential feature must be emphasis on the strategic importance of vocational awards and the associated skills, knowledge and competences that will create a flexible, productive and highly qualified workforce.
First published in Education and Training Matters for Plumbing Lectures for the CIPHE in Spring 2014.