Used, particularly in political policy discourse, to refer to an equality in status between routes of study, particularly ones where such equality could demonstrably be argued not to exist. It was a phrase used, for example, to describe the relationship between grammar school and secondary modern provision as implemented by the Education Act 1944 (Butler Act), suggesting that the two types of provision were, in some undefined sense, of equal value. More recently, it was used as part of the rhetoric surrounding the introduction of National Vocational Qualifications and General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs), suggesting that these qualification routes would be held in equal regard, by parents, employers, and higher education institutions, with the General Certificate of Secondary Education or General Certificate of Education Advanced Levels (A levels). In the White Paper Education and Training for the 21st Century (1991), the government of the day declared its intention to ‘promote equal esteem for academic and vocational qualifications’. A clearer sense of what such ‘parity’ might be taken to mean in practice emerges from a City and Guilds of London Institute newsletter of 1992, which claimed that, ‘at Level 3, GNVQ will have parity with A levels and thus provide a viable route to Higher Education’. Claims of parity between the general and the vocational routes appear to have been made largely on a theoretical basis only. For example, on 13 November 1993, before the first cohort of GNVQ students had even completed their qualification, and therefore before this contention had been put to the test, John Patten, then Secretary of State for Education, announced on Radio 4's Today programme that the Advanced GNVQ ‘has parity of esteem with A levels’. The urgency to establish credentials for alternative, vocational routes into higher education may be explained by the policy goal of higher participation rates in education and training after 16, and national targets to create a higher proportion of graduates in the workforce.
Thus, we see that ‘parity’ in this context tends to be defined in terms of utility. The vocational qualification may be regarded as having ‘parity of esteem’ in the sense that it will serve the purpose of enabling progression to employment or to higher education just as the general or academic qualification will do. In wider terms of value or status, however, the claims for parity are more difficult to substantiate. It also remains questionable whether parity of esteem is accorded to students on vocational and general education courses within the same institution. One of the initial obstacles to establishing parity for GNVQs was their emphasis on continuous assessment, which led opponents to argue that, without a rigorous system of summative and externally assessed examinations, the new qualification could not realistically be considered as a currency equivalent to a level for progression to higher education. The eventual introduction of more rigorous external assessment did not, however, lead to equality of status. This was not surprising as the lack of parity arose from systemic social, economic, and political causes which rendered it impervious to a simple change of assessment mode.