An enterprising approach to education

As A-level results soar again, a small business group argues that work-based training is still under-valued...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Federation of Small Businesses reckons that the new vocational diplomas, which are due to be introduced in the next academic year, will encourage teenagers towards entrepreneurship and make them better prepared for working life – so it wants them to be accorded equal status to A-levels. Its argument is that lots of entrepreneurs don’t have academic qualifications – and it hasn’t done them any harm (well, in most cases anyway).

It was the same old story today as the A-level results arrived to put nervous sixth-formers out of their misery. Once again, the pass rate was up – to a record 97.2% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – while the proportion of A-grades also increased, to 25.9% (in best-in-class, apple-for-the-teacher Northern Ireland, more than a third of entrants got As). And that’s despite the fact that more people are doing the exams than ever before.

Inevitably, this has led to more accusations that A-levels are dumbing down (the alternative explanation being that today’s students are just cleverer and more industrious than previous generations…). If nothing else, it’s certainly making it harder for universities to distinguish between top candidates, which is why the government has been forced to introduce an A* grade for students starting courses in September, plus an extended project worth half an A-level. It’s also trying to push through its skills agenda by getting more people to do science, technology, engineering, and maths exams.

The FSB’s argument is that there ought to be more of a level playing field between academic and vocational qualifications (‘The FSB still values A-levels but we hope to see diplomas and work based training on the same par,’ said its education and skills chairman Colin Willman today). It’s an admirable principle – but we just can’t see how it would work. How can a City & Guilds in plastering be comparable with an English A-level (and what would be the point if it was)? And we can’t imagine universities welcoming the idea, if they’re already struggling to sort the wheat from the chaff.

The FSB is also urging entrepreneurial teenagers to get cracking with a business, rather than wasting three or four years at university. After all, a 2006 FSB survey discovered that only about a quarter of UK small business owners have a degree, while about one in eight UK entrepreneurs has no formal qualifications whatsoever. Then again, perhaps that’s why we don’t have many billionaire entrepreneurs in this country...

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