Wednesday, 25 July 2007

"Space Invaders is fun. Discuss"

The schools secretary Ed Balls has announced plans for a new vocational qualification, which will, if pupils follow it to its highest level, be deemed equivalent to an A-level. The subject towards which pupils studying for this diploma will direct their minds will be "the historical development of computer games". Actually, that's not the only thing that they'll have to do in order to get their hands on an "Advanced Media Diploma". They'll also have to "critically respond to a range of computer games" (presumably that means playing them and saying whether they liked doing so), and discuss why people like playing computer games. And they may even have to print banners for a party, or perform a stand-up comedy routine. Sounds challenging, and really just as difficult as an A-level in English, History, or Maths.

The proposed diploma is one of a range of fourteen, and it may be that some of the others will be rather more valuable than this one. Well, they could hardly be less valuable. The reason behind the creation of these diplomas, which will begin to be phased in in 2008, is that, since the government plans (wrongly, in my opinion) to start forcing pupils to stay at school until the age of eighteen, there should be a middle way between the current options of A-levels and going off to work, whereby pupils do a vocationally-orientated course at school. And that's a perfectly reasonable idea (with the caveat that it would be a lot simpler just to continue letting children leave school at 16), although I can't see what value the "skills" taught by the Advanced Media Diploma could possibly have to an employer.

But the government also wants to give children "more choice". Specifically, the choice between going to university at the age of eighteen, and getting a job. And thus the government also wishes to endow the diplomas with equal value to A-levels, when it comes to university applications. So, in theory, one could apply to Oxford with one's straight As at A-level, or one could turn up with one's top-graded diploma in computer games, and it would make no difference one way or the other.
And herein lies the problem. Because the fact is, that as I have written above, discussing the merits of Space Invaders does not equate, on an intellectual level, to discussing the merits of The Canterbury Tales, or Romeo and Juliet. A-levels may have become easier, but they're not that easy! Giving equal credit to the new diplomas will simply undermine the value of A-levels.

That is not to say that vocational qualifications are necessarily worthless. However, it should be remembered that they are vocational qualifications, and therefore (ideally) qualify you for a
vocation. Not for academic study. A-levels, by contrast, are academic qualifications, and are of course more likely to qualify you for academia. It is as ludicrous to say that studying for a diploma in construction work necessarily qualifies you to do a degree, as to say that studying for an A-level in English necessarily qualifies you to be a builder.

I doubt, in any event, that these qualifications will be treated as being equal to A-levels by universities. Admissions tutors will surely see the difference in quality, even if Ed Balls doesn't, and will act accordingly, whether they're meant to or not. So, what Ed Balls has essentially produced, is a set of qualifications which won't help those taking them to get into university, but which, if the Advanced Media Diploma is anything to go by, won't equip school-leavers with any skills that would interest an employer (and certainly with none that couldn't be got by two years of actual practical experience, which they could have got, had they left at 16). Balls says of his little project:
I want to see the brightest and the best taking diplomas which will give them more choice and allow them to get the careers they really want.

I'm confident that when people study the draft content now available, they will see how far we've come in developing a credible alternative for all young people.
To which I say: "Ed, balls!"

Update: It looks like my prediction about the response of university admissions tutors to these diplomas was correct: only 38% see them as a suitable alternative to A-levels, according to the BBC.
I think it would also be interesting to know which universities these 38% come from. Because I wouldn't mind making the further prediction, that they are significantly more likely to come from the ex-polys (which tend to have substantially lower entrance requirements anyway), than from Oxbridge or the Russell Group.


Anonymous said...

Mandatory education until 18? The more cynical among us could perhaps see that as a ploy to keep young people out of the job market and so artificially manage the unemployment numbers.

Anonymous said...

Bring back the Technical Colleges where the non-academics can learn a bit of plumbing, electrics, home & money management etc. etc.

They could also learn how to teach a bit of respect to their future offspring!