The troubled General National Vocational Qualification is facing a massive overhaul only four years after its introduction. But the changes will not be enough to prevent vocational courses remaining second-best, say teachers, lecturers and academics.
The Government has decided not to rechristen the GNVQ as a new "applied A-level" as had been proposed. But while the name remains the same, the school-based vocational course is set for radical alteration.
Multiple-choice tests and the massive weight of box-ticking assessment have been abandoned. Instead, external testing and academic rigour will be introduced in an attempt to simplify the qualification, with ministers promising an additional Pounds 10 million to put the changes through in time for 1998.
This week's announcement by junior education minister Lord Henley will be seen as an official admission that the GNVQ is seriously flawed. The Government has adopted almost wholesale the recommendations for changes to the GNVQ put forward in Sir Ron Dearing's review of 14-19 education. These were based on criticisms made in an influential review of GNVQ assessment by Dr John Capey, principal of Exeter Further Education College.
Sir Ron initially recommended that the advanced level GNVQ be renamed the "Applied A-level". however, this has now been rejected both by him and by the Department for Education and Employment. The new name was meant to boost its standing with employers and universities. Critics suspect that ministers have been unwilling to tarnish the "gold standard" of the A-level by broadening its scope.
The overhaul has been welcomed by teachers and lecturers who have complained about the workload it entails. They remain concerned that the new, simplified system will add to the bill for examination entries faced by schools and colleges. A group of six professional associations from schools and colleges have issued a warning over the escalating costs of exam fees.
This week, the awarding bodies said the new assessment system was likely to be more expensive to administer and the costs would be passed on to schools and colleges.
Both the Association of Colleges and the National Union of Teachers have criticised the Government for ignoring the continued cost for schools and colleges of introducing what is still an experimental course. The AOC also believes the Government may have swung too far in the direction of academic rigour, leaving the qualification without its distinctive vocational flavour.
John Bangs, education officer for the National Union of Teachers, praised the announcement, but said that problems remained. The qualification is still regarded as second-best to A-level, he said. "I can't understand why Dearing moved away from the idea of the applied A-level. He has thereby contributed to the lowering of the status of the GNVQ." He said students were still pressured to choose between an academic or a vocational route, rather than mixing and matching.
David Hart, general-secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The Government has decided to operate an a la carte menu, picking and choosing the bits it likes. I find that rather worrying. There is a great deal to be said for introducing more rigour. But there is a danger that the Government might undermine the credibility of vocational qualifications in the market-place by its failure to endorse the applied A-level concept which is absolutely critical in the NAHT's judgment."
Professor Alan Smithers from Brunel University, whose 1993 report famously declared the vocational education system a "disaster", said the changes were welcome, but they did not go far enough to prevent the GNVQ remaining the low-status option. He suggested the Government was reluctant to "dilute" the A-level by using the name for an applied course such as the current GNVQ.
"The changes do get the GNVQ back on track," he said. "But it's still not clear what GNVQs are about in comparison with A-levels or workplace training. We're still going to have GNVQs as second best, which is really disappointing. "
There is general acknowledgement that the current GNVQ was fatally flawed in its attempt to use observational, workplace methods to assess a classroom-based course. This week, Dr John Capey said the exam had been seen as "an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) in disguise".
This led to teachers ticking boxes whenever a student demonstrated one of the hundreds of competences expected of him or her. The new assessment method will be based on a few pieces of centrally determined course work, designed to demonstrate a great deal in one go.
"If we're doing anything, we're moving away from coverage for its own sake towards knowledge and skills being demonstrated in a more selective way, " said Gordon Stobart, principal adviser to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
"It is to do with moving away from an occupationally based system to something more general. People have been increasingly aware that many of the students are going into higher education rather than work. So they are needing a flexible qualification rather than something very specific. It is the middle way between vocational and academic pathways."
According to the Association of Colleges, however, the "de-vocationalising" changes may have gone too far. Judith Norrington, curriculum director at the AOC, welcomed the introduction of set assignments but questioned the need for wide use of external tests as well.
While some believe the assessment changes will help make GNVQs deliverable in schools, the AOC is concerned that they might reduce their appeal for older students taught in colleges. NCVQ researchers behind the revision have acknowledged that one effect could be a move away from specific local contexts - the study of dairy farming in rural areas, for example - towards a nationally standardised, generic approach.