Burger, fries and an A-level please: It may not be a Cambridge degree, but the McDonald’s ‘A-Level’ serves a purpose

Pete Jefferys 7 February 2008

Headline writers cannot believe their luck. Not only have private companies been given the power to accredit their own exams but leading the charge is the evil embodiment of globalisation itself; the perpetrator of worldwide obesity, the cause of culinary decline, perhaps even the root of all evil.

Yes, McDonalds is the new Edexcel. Tabloid front pages scream anything academically related prefixed by those dreaded two letters that lexicographers have smarmily taken hostage in recent years. ‘McStudents’ taking ‘McExams’ in ‘McSchools’; whilst simultaneously on the comment pages vitriol drips from those who see this as degrading their own qualifications, a mockery of real academe, and a damning indictment of the state of education.

Perhaps we should pause for a second however, pull back from the easy headlines, and stop spitting bile and burger grease at those who have introduced these measures. The connotations of a fast-food chain awarding nationally recognised qualifications are clear and obviously compelling for those who wish to vilify the British education system, but are there really substantive arguments why this shouldn’t happen?

Firstly, two points need to be cleared up. The A-level or diploma in question will be a ‘basic shift manager’ course. Not, as the inevitable rumours are claiming, a glorified burger-flipping quiz. It will provide training and expertise in maths and literacy, hygiene, marketing, health and safety, recruitment and human resources.

Gordon Brown’s claim on GMTV that ‘once you’ve got that qualification you can go anywhere’ was probably slightly overenthusiastic, but the point is that this will be a rigorous course which serves a practical purpose– 3000 McDonald’s workers per year will be gaining valuable business acumen.

The qualifications advanced by other companies, such as Network Rail and Flybe, will be tailored specifically to the vocational environment of the work – something that traditional courses are not often designed for.

Secondly, these qualifications are specifically for workers in the companies involved, not for the national curriculum generally. They are intended to shore up skills and business knowledge amongst employees, not feature between maths and history in the average student’s day.

It is all part of the government’s drive to bring skills into the workforce, including a push to increase the number of those taking apprenticeships from 250,000 to 500,000 and helping 300,000 single parents to find work. Laudable goals that promise to help those who may not thrive in mainstream education and further increase aspirations, especially amongst young people, many of whom have become disillusioned with a system bent inexorably towards privilege.

These considerations should help to silence those who see vocational and skills based qualifications as a ‘dumbing down’ of the education system. The purpose of these courses is not to rival the academic rigour of Latin or Physics but to equip the workforce with valuable, transferable skills. If private companies are prepared to contribute to this aim then they should be encouraged, not derided.

Unfortunately it is not all carrot from the government. The stick comes in the form of James Purnell, the new Secretary for Work and Pensions, who has announced changes to the unemployment benefits system which will mean that claimants will have to go through a “skills check” and prove that they are actively seeking employment, or the allowances will be dropped. I am not sure whether Purnell himself will preside over this X-Factor style tribunal of the workless; but he certainly has the tenacity of Simon Cowell, claiming that Labour is ‘ideologically neutral’ on benefits: a strange philosophy for a political party, and a worrying admission from a ‘rising star’ in the cabinet.

McDonalds and its ilk may well be a factor in growing levels of obesity and general nutritional ignorance; but that should not stop us praising it as a trailblazer on this issue, nor from encouraging other companies to follow suit.

Vocational courses may not carry the same weight with University admissions tutors as do academic qualifications, but they provide practical skills for the workplace; skills that many employers find graduates lacking. And if this raft of measures introduced by the government can help bring work, qualifications and aspirations to a disillusioned generation then they should be praised for it, in spite of the tabloid headline writers’ glee.

Pete Jefferys