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Are vocational courses soft options?

Do vocational courses yield genuinely valuable qualifications, or are they a scam? An academic and a headteacher put alternative cases, while below, TES readers offer their views

'GNVQs provided an opportunity that has been hopelessly fluffed'

Current school vocational qualifications are not so much a soft option as a bit of a con. GNVQs, and the A-levels and GCSEs derived from them, confer almost no job advantage. Instead, they have become a way of getting into those universities that have the most difficulty in filling places.

The charge of "softness" stems mainly from the qualifications' role in helping schools to show up well. Ofsted inspectors have said schools are not devoting enough time to applied GCSEs to justify their status as double awards. Incredibly, the intermediate GNVQ counts as four GCSEs - on the grounds that it was intended as a whole programme of study.

Schools have spotted its league table potential. Nine of the 10 most improved schools in the country admitted to introducing GNVQs to boost their results. The increasing popularity of vocational education is, therefore, largely a fiction. It has been fuelled mainly by false weighting in league tables. Fortunately, this particular scam will be scuppered by the new English and maths-based tables.

At advanced level, vocational education - never very popular - is in decline. At its zenith in 1999, the advanced GNVQ in 13 fields attracted fewer entries than A-level English. After reinvention as vocational A-levels, entries are down in all fields except health and social care, where there is a ladder into jobs, and the performing arts, taken by only a handful.

It looks like the students have sussed them out. School vocational qualifications are increasingly being seen for what they are - lesser alternatives. Employers have little input to their design and little actual work experience is built into them. Further education colleges, traditional homes of high-quality practical education, have successfully resisted them.

GNVQs have therefore emerged as mainly for schools, which often lack the equipment and expertise to provide up-to-date employment-based training.

Hence the anomaly that half the GNVQs were in the same subjects as academic A-levels. Now these GNVQs have become vocational A-levels, offered alongside traditional A-levels in the same subjects, it is not surprising students have been switching out of them. Why consign yourself to the second rank when you can take the real thing?

This is a pity. English school education has been lamentably weak in developing practical skills. There is an urgent need to erect ladders from school to work to rival the academic ladders to university. GNVQs provided an opportunity that has been hopelessly fluffed.

It is often suggested the failings of vocational education come from academic prejudice, and bundling up the vocational and academic in a Tomlinson-type diploma would help overcome it. Tosh. Not all A-levels are of equal value - it depends what you can do with them. Where vocational qualifications open doors, they are valued. But too many "vocational" qualifications do not lead anywhere.

The missing ingredient is employers, who have to provide the engine. Their representatives bemoan the deficiencies in school education, but will not put their effort where their mouths are. For courses to be genuinely vocational, they have to lead to qualifications that employers will recruit on and reward. Otherwise, rather than providing for the practically-inclined, they become a way of coping with the less brainy.

The Government has seen these weaknesses and has plans for vocational diplomas. To succeed, these must be employer-led. They will also have to take place in employment and educational settings and should draw on the expertise of further education colleges. Other countries have established good vocational ladders and we should learn from them. Rather than soft scores for league tables, they must become hard currency in the labour market.

Professor Alan Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham university

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