Sir Andrew Cubie's robust defence of the framework provided by the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework and frustration at its under-use deserve wider consideration due to the issues highlighted and their educational and economic importance.
However, the framework is a map of qualifications, a "geographical expression".
It describes the terrain of qualifications but not a landscape that is flat or uniform. Lack of recognition of the framework exposes fundamental flaws in post-16 education in Scotland that will undermine the best efforts and recommendations of the Commission For Developing Scotland's Young Workforce led by Sir Ian Wood. A framework must have two defining characteristics: it should have parity across qualification domains and it should help with progression. Sir Andrew describes the absence of parity but stops short of identifying the key reasons why this is the case.
On parity, he says vocational standards are not given universal recognition. Why? The answer lies in groups' awareness that there are different forms of delivery and assessment, resulting in vocational education not being seen as high value. Vocational courses are delivered to prove competence and neither designed nor suited to judge the ability to undertake higher order skill challenges or to make further academic progression.
This sells students short on sophisticated skills desired by premium employers. As an approach, competence-based vocational education is more suited to a skills system producing mid-range skills for a relatively modest economy over-focused on service industries. Sound familiar?
A flourishing dual system, with parity of esteem for vocational education (as in Germany) is characterised by similarities between the two sectors. Both will be equal in their emphasis on curriculum rigour and excellence, thereby avoiding the trap of establishing a perceived hierarchy of the academic sector. For the vocational sector, an unambiguous emphasis on science and mathematics provides the challenge and depth to be the match of any academic sphere.
Development of a world-class vocational education pathway is unlikely to be achieved by sheltering within a relatively unambitious framework protected by a monopoly agency (the Scottish Qualifications Authority). A more productive answer is to look outwards and interact with different and competing qualification bodies offering awards that rely on curriculum identity and modernity as well as assessment calibre.
On progression, the desired emphasis is on a framework enabling a sequential vocational route, without restriction. Circumstances mitigate against success in establishing vocational pathways, even if the Wood Commission succeeds in establishing tributaries earlier in the secondary school phase, rather than vocational education remaining a second-best choice at age-16.
The challenges are:
l Colleges dealing, in considerable part, with "deficiency" rather than development in the groups progressing from school. Under-performance in pre-requisites for vocational excellence (science, mathematics, literacy) are inhibitors and suggest re-balancing the school curriculum around Curriculum For Excellence was the wrong option.
l The transition from colleges and HND programmes into universities. A recent report highlighted the vulnerability of students on direct entry to year two or three of university degree programmes.
l The Scottish Government's drive for efficiency gains, which has masked awareness of opportunity within the new, regional colleges. In England and Wales, there are opportunities for building new vocational higher education routes within re-invented institutions.
The framework is not the issue: it is the underlying performance of phases and pathways that undermines its credibility.
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