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The froth on the burger

neon-burgerThere has been much UK press excitement this week about McDonald’s (yes, that McDonald’s) being approved as an “awarding body” so that they can offer, assess and moderate their own in-house management and supervisory qualifications.

The extent of coverage came as something of a surprise. No so much because of the story itself, but because this is the sort of response that could be expected in August – when we are treated to a month of silly stories because clearly, nothing much can possibly be happening whilst our glorious leaders are enjoying their villas in Tuscany.

The normally more balanced BBC led the frenzy of indignation under the headline “McDonald’s serves up Diplomas” According to the BBC News site:

“McDonald’s has won approval to offer courses which could form part of a qualification at the standard of A-levels or advanced Diplomas.”

Closer reading (and reference to UK qualifications regulator QCA) suggests that McDonald’s, the airline FlyBe and rail infrastructure operator Network Rail have each been approved as awarding bodies to offer in-house qualifications at level 3 as part of the new Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), which is currently being trialled in a number of sectors.

Their qualifications are very much work-based and assessed on proven competence in the workplace. They also happen to be the same level (equivalence) within the overall qualifications framework as the new vocationally-oriented “Diploma” qualifications for 14-19 year olds which are launching in September. Diplomas are academic qualifications set within one of 14 industry sectors which, at advanced/level 3, also have equivalence with A levels. All Diplomas comprise sector-specific Principal Learning alongside Maths, English and ITC study, as well as Additional and Specialist learning which might include languages or other A levels as well as smaller industry-specific qualifications, a minimum of 10 days work experience and negotiated project work.

All Diplomas are delivered by local consortia typically comprising schools, further education colleges, training providers and (sometimes) universities.

The BBC asserts that: “students could combine units from in-house courses with others to obtain the new Diplomas.”

It may just be that some Diploma learners could gain credits towards such qualifications as part of their (limited) work experience and indeed, such qualification could be useful specialist learning supplements to the core topics in the Diploma. It is, however, something of a leap from reality to the assertion that the fast-food giant is serving up Diplomas.

Now this may be betraying confidences but since I’ve just been heavily involved in the process of assessing submissions from consortia bidding to offer the Diploma in Hospitality, which covers restaurants, hotels etc., I can assure you that no bids have included McDonalds as a partner.

The BBC site quotes comments such as “Can you see any of the better universities accepting someone because of their McGCSE results?”, alongside a poll asking whether McDonald’s should “serve up academic qualifications”; adding to the false impression that the BBC is striving to create. This seems to me to be a classic example of taking two items and carefully stitching them together to create an impression of a third, more attention-grabbing, story.

It does, however, reopen discussion about how the value of vocational learning can be recognised alongside academic learning and what choppy waters are to be found in the space between the two. Frameworks that incorporate both vocational and academic qualifications indicate a parity of esteem which seems only to exist in the minds of the regulators and those of us concerned with countering the inherent snobbery of both academia and industry.

It would undoubtedly be easier and less contentious to maintain complete separation of the constituencies, freeing them to look down on each other from a safe distance. However, that model became redundant when vocational courses started getting degree status and vocationally oriented 18+ colleges rushed to call themselves universities.

McDonald’s, FlyBe and Network Rail have not yet indicated any intention to offer assessment and certification services to anyone other than their own staff but, as awarding bodies, they are entitled to – that’s where the branding of their qualifications becomes an issue.

However flimsy the press coverage, questions naturally arise about the gradual privatisation of aspects of education and assessment. In the rosy-tinted glow of yesteryear the public sector managed the processes with fairness and integrity as their sole motivators. The reality is that awarding bodies have been in private hands for quite a few years and profitability is an imperative. Increased competition in the commercial marketplace is viewed, by politicians of almost all hues, as a universally good thing.

The McDonald’s exams will be good though: “You may turn your burgers over … now”.

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