At last there is some good news about General National Vocational Qualifications. According to a recent report from Oxford University, those taking the advanced-level GNVQ in science not only described their course as "brilliant", but are also learning how to study for the first time.
This may not fit into the single-minded quality control approach of the Office for Standards in Education (TES, December 9, 1994), but in terms of self-esteem and motivation it represents real achievement and promise for the future.
During the pilot year for GNVQ in science, while teachers and students seemed to be floundering in paperwork, a cohort of nearly 50 students, some with very poor grades at GCSE, were being interviewed on a termly basis. They were drawn from the urban and rural Midlands and from inner London. The team of three researchers asked the students why they had chosen the course, what it was like, and how they were learning.
That last question is not such an easy one to answer. At the beginning of the year it produced little more than awkward silences, or stories about pinning notes to the bedroom ceiling. By the third term, however, they did know how they studied. They spoke about using the library, about asking for personal tutorials and, best of all, about negotiating with their teachers for the grades they reckoned that their assignments deserved.
Among the most interesting features of GNVQ are the grading criteria for the student assignments. Of course, the students also have a long list of performance criteria to meet in terms of what they should know and what they can do.
As they tackle these, they compile a portfolio of graded assignments which may be laboratory reports, posters, or a group presentation. To reach the standard of merit or distinction they have to provide evidence of how they planned, obtained data, and evaluated the outcomes of their work.
This may not sound entirely novel, but when it is combined with the student's active role in their own assessment it can produce some very worthwhile results.
Students who, by their own admission, had used books very little, began to do so. They wanted higher grades. Those who had relied on work-sheets learned the beginnings of either independence or inter-dependence. Learning to work in groups is one of the skills that employers are keen to see schools and colleges instil.
Although there were FE colleges in the sample that were still setting essays on the equivalent of "Pig Breeding in the Midlands," and conducting action-planning tutorials as though they were exercises in filling out the weekly Filofax, others did better. They reviewed the students' portfolios, discussed their weaknesses and strengths, and made recommendations for further work. The students got regular feedback. If you had only ever received Ds or Es for your work, in red ink, this approach would make a lot of difference.
The cohort who found themselves taking advanced GNVQ may not have done well before, but they usually admitted to having "always liked science". Indeed those who came on the course just for vocational reasons, or because they got their best GCSE grades in science, had often dropped out by the end of the first year.
This is a worrying facet of GNVQ recruitment, and the Oxford research suggests that it may be due to insufficient counselling. This course requires a great deal of practical work, and all the students spoke of the considerable workload. Even those who had transferred over after a year of A-level found the going heavy, but they often spoke of the course's more relevant content - "it's about what you want to know".
A question this research goes some way towards answering is how to counsel students about whether to take A-level or GNVQ. Both can lead to higher education. GNVQ aims to develop study skills; A-level does not. GNVQ teaches core skills (although unevenly, according to this report); A-level does not. GNVQ uses practical assignments rather than lectures, so less theory is covered. A-level is rich in theory and its delivery is lecture-based: it uses practical work mostly for illustration. The resulting courses appeal to different types of student.
We now have two parallel but very different science courses for post-16s. Both are entry routes to higher education. Rather than trying to compare them by saying GNVQ is equivalent to two A-levels, the Oxford team is suggesting that the choice itself is valuable for potential science students. There are few enough of them these days.
The pool of those interested in science, via hobbies or wild-life TV programmes, remains largely untapped by the austerity of A-level. Providing a new course which gives such students the self-esteem that they have previously lacked must be welcome.
In practice, GNVQ has made a patchy start, but with just enough examples to show that it can motivate the unmotivated. With less criticism and more time to develop good practice, it may do well both by our students and by our science-based industries.
Joan Solomon is lecturer in research at the University of Oxford Department of Educational Studies.