This year’s VQ Day was a chance to celebrate technical, practical and vocational learning. But it was also a chance day for business secretary Vince Cable to remember the difference that further education made to his parents’ lives.
“My mother and father both left school at 15 to work in factories and they progressed in life through further and adult education,” he said.
“My dad became eventually a lecturer in a technology college, teaching building trades, everything from brick layers to surveyors.
“That’s what I was brought up with; a belief in that world of real skill, real vocational qualifications and the value it had to society.”
The gathering of students, teachers, friends and family at London’s Bafta Theatre watched Walsall College perform an adaptation of Matthew Bourne’s The Nutcracker and Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College demonstrate how to make macaroons. They also had the chance to try their hand at finger printing and bone identification at City and Islington College’s interactive crime scene.
Will Torrent, an award winning pastry chef and WorldSkills alumni, hosted the Learner of the Year ceremony. “It’s an honour to really celebrate vocational education,” he said.
Dr Cable said that he feared the value of vocational learning was becoming lost. “In my generation the idea got around that if you were good at school you went off to university and that was up here, and if you didn’t, and were lucky, you went off and got a vocational qualification, and that was down there.”
He called it an “apartheid system” that was “extremely unhealthy” and which had done “enormous harm”. The country was now “desperately short” of highly trained people with a good vocational background.
“We’re beginning to realise, well hopefully it’s now absorbed, that vocational training is as or more important than the academic route. At the very least we should think of them as equals.”
We’ve let a lot of vocational skills go and we’re paying the price for it”
He said that a change in attitude was “beginning to happen” and sensed that the younger generation better understood the value of a vocational education.
In an interview with FE Week, Dr Cable said that he agreed with Ed Miliband’s comment that there was “snobbery” towards vocational learning. In a speech to a Sutton Trust conference in May, the Labour leader said that we “should reject the snobbery that assumes the only route to social mobility runs through university”.
Dr Cable said last week: “We’ve let a lot of vocational skills go and we’re paying the price for it. With events like this, you’re seeing the process being put into reverse and proper valuation put on vocational training.”
Several of the award winners had gone on to university. That’s the kind of lowering of the boundary we need to have.”
Lord Baker, a former Tory education secretary, and now largely responsible for the introduction of university technical colleges, echoed the Business Secretary’s concern that vocational qualifications had not been properly valued.
Dave Hughes, National VQ Learner of the Year, James Giblin, North West Learner of the Year and Margaret Green, Yorkshire and Humber Learner of the Year
“There are 4 million vocational qualifications granted every year. Infinitely more than GCSE, infinitely more than A-Level, and yet they get very much more attention.
“There’s no doubt that the vocational qualifications are immensely popular with the students who take them and the teachers who teach them. And they’re very important,” he said.
Dr Cable and Lord Baker presented awards to the nine winners. Dave Hughes, 24, from Newcastle-under-Lyme, was named the National VQ Learner of the Year, as well as the regional award for the West Midlands.
After achieving a triple distinction in his national diploma in art and design, Dave completed an HND in graphic design and set-up his own marketing and design agency. His company, elloDave, employs a number of former creative students from Newcastle-under-Lyme College, where he studied.
“To leave school and to go to a course that you know it’s something you want to do, it’s great,” he said. “It’s good you don’t have to be in such an academic environment and you can do hands on training for the field you want to go into.”
Also presented with an award was Margaret Green, 48, from Bradford. She said that she was “absolutely blown away” when she won VQ Learner of the Year for Yorkshire and the Humber.
Vocational training is as or more important than the academic route”
Speaking about her apprenticeship in pharmacy services, Ms Green said: “It’s given me a lot of confidence, and I’ve learnt to love me for who I am, not who I’d like to be,” she said.
When she was 14 she was told that she wasn’t worth teaching and wouldn’t amount to anything.
“From that day my self-esteem went down. I hit low. I stopped putting my hand up for questions, because I stopped believing in myself. You start doubting yourself. After a lot of years you actually truly believe it.”
She was very nervous about embarking on the apprenticeship. “It’s been 30-plus years since I’ve been at school and it wasn’t a decision I took lightly,” she said.
“There were a lot of demons, a lot of baggage, and I thought, I’ve got to get rid of these demons, I’ve got to bury them. I can do this. I bit the bullet and I went for it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
“And I’m not stopping here. There’s no way I’m stopping. I’m going to go forward.
This is it. It’s opened a whole lot of doors for me.”