Monday, January 28, 2008

McDonalds, FlyBe and Network Rail to offer A-levels

The news reports in the UK are all a-twitter this morning with the news that the first tranch of employers has been empowered to award A-level equivalent diplomas to their staff, along the lines of the new, more vocational diplomas on offer at many schools.

For those not based in the UK, it might help to know that compulsory education in the UK ends at 16 with the GCSE (general certificate of secondary education). This certificate on its own is insufficient to gain access to a university, so those who plan to go this route will usually stay on for an optional two (or even three) years gaining three or more A-levels. While almost all high schools offer A-levels, since they are post-compulsory, they constitute further education (or FE). These A-levels are acceptable entrance criteria to a university (which constitutes higher education or HE).

Many students may go straight to work after GCSEs, while others may opt to go to college (as distinct from university) to study towards a diploma.

Of course, the public's attention has been captured by the notion of an "A-level in burger flipping". The other two organisations have hardly rated a mention. I'm fairly sure that McDonalds will look into issues other than burger flipping, but the cynicism levels are running high, right now.

Several universities have indicated that they consider the new diplomas to be lacking in academic rigour and will not accept them as valid entry criteria to the university.

I find myself torn on this subject. I can see why the universities might think that the vocational diplomas give insufficient indication of an individual's capacity/appetite for academic study. On the other hand, I gained access to my current Master's degree programme by piecing together odds and ends of formal education and producing evidence of 18 years worth of experience and informal, self-directed learning, and I have certainly not been left behind by those in my class with a more traditionally academic background. In fact, I am generally regarded as the best-read member of the class.

Then again, university is not the only way forward. And perhaps it's time society did away with academic snobbery.

In my days as a student, I dated two civil engineering students (not simultaneously!). One was studying towards a degree at the university, on a full bursary from the most prestigious corporation in the country. The other was studying towards a diploma at the Technikon (read polytechnic), with his fees being paid by an employer. The university student spent four years in the classroom. The technikon student spent four years doing rotations of six months in the classroom and six months on site. It was obvious that society viewed the first as being the superior individual, and he was certainly cleverer than the technikon student in an academic sense. But would this make him a better civil engineer? Would the bridges built under his supervision be better able to stand up to the rigours of constant traffic use?

I don't know what courses McDonalds, FlyBe and Network Rail are planning to offer, but it isn't helped by the sort of snideness the announcement is attracting (see the comments on the linked article).

Since McDonalds seems to have become the purveyor of the staple diet in the UK, and since air and rail travel are frequent topics of heated conversation, perhaps it is just as well that some work-based training is being set in place for these organisations!

After all, one of the questions we often ask in this space is: what is education for? Perhaps this is finally the beginning of educational programmes with an answer to that question.

Having said that, I don't relish the idea of a future in which all learning has to have an employment-related point. How narrow our lives would become if we only ever learned skills and information that would help us at work.

We see here the opporunity for employers to have a real impact on the future of learning. Perhaps we will see further dismantling of my bugbear: the wall between corporate and academic learning! It will be interesting to see whether it proves successful.


Harold Jarche said...

I would say this is a good thing, as it provides more options. One system (vocational-cooperative, employment-centred) is not better than another (academic, discipline-focused, classroom-centred) and we need both and then even more options. In Canada, we focused too much on the latter and now have many debt-laden, well-educated unemployed young people.

Anonymous said...

When I was in high school (in South Africa, and I don't know if they still have this system), there were several different types of schools at high school level. There was the academic option: teaching the traditional subjects such as languages, maths, the sciences, accounting, typing and the humanities. Some schools also offered various arts (mine did not).
Many of these academic models had what was called a "practical" stream, which was more hands-on, and tended to focus on needlework, home economics, practical science etc. and ended two years earlier than the "main" stream. This stream was done away with, as it attracted very few students and was costly to sustain as a consequence.
There were also "technical" schools, teaching subjects such as metalwork, woodwork, signwriting, technical drawing etc.
Another type was the "commercial" high school, where the subjects on offer included mercantile law, accounting, industrial psychology, etc.

However, the academic snobbery I mentioned was all too apparent and, to my shame, I susbcribed to it. The traditional, academic model far outnumbered all the other options put together and was, therefore, the standard. The girls who followed the practical stream in my school were considered by the rest of us to be those unable to amount to anything much.

Many of the trade schools doubled as low security juvenile correction facilities and placements for boys from troubled homes, so those boys (and they were only open to boys in those days) who went there by choice were often tarred with the same brush in the eyes of the general populace.

The commercial schools, too, were looked down upon, although slightly less so than the others. Nevertheless, when one of the clever, popular girls from our school switched to a commercial school in another city, we were appalled. Why would she do such a thing? She was capable of so much more!

Oh my goodness, I have much to repent of! Particularly since many members of my extended family would have been better served by a different model, had they not felt compelled by snobbery to follow the academic route.

Mea culpa.

I have since come to appreciate that, for all its other flaws, the system was doing its level best to ensure that everyone got the high school education for which they were best suited and which would best prepare them for a fulfilling career (should they want one, of course!).