Choice threatened as the future of A levels hangs in the balance

Business studies teachers fear the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications are planning to drop business studies A-level but keep the GNVQ. Their anxiety stems from the suggestion in the Dearing review of 16-19 education a year ago that perhaps there may be unnecessary duplication of qualifications in the subject because many parents and employers do not recognise the difference between A-level and GNVQ business studies.

For the past year SCAA and the NCVQ have been trying to characterise more precisely the differences between the parallel families of academic and vocational qualifications. They are trying to ensure that where a subject is available in more than one pathway that it adds choice and flexibility but does not duplicate what is already available in another pathway.

This work is continuing but at Easter a progress report was submitted to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The message of this submission was that this is a complex issue which goes beyond a simple allocation of subjects to each family of qualifications. It is likely that the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (the successor to SCAA and NCVQ) will take this work forward in developing criteria for the approval of all qualifications.

Business studies could fall victim to its growing popularity at A-level, which if transferred to the GNVQ pathway would give a much needed boost to the standing of GNVQs. Liz Francis, one of SCAA's professional officers, says that A-level business studies is unlikely to disappear in the short term, but the QCA will be looking at the future of business studies qualificati ons. She says: "In the longer term it is feasible that some subjects will continue in more than one pathway as long as they are demonstrably different. "

A-level teachers are worried that the qualification may disappear, which could either put them out of a job or mean that they would have to transfer to GNVQ business studies.

John Hardy, president of the National Association of Advisers and Inspectors of Business Education, says his association recognises that the two qualifications are different animals and that some young people are better suited to the vocational route: "We do think there is a place for both routes. Then schools can at least make the choice."

He believes that when the part one GNVQ becomes available in all schools in September 1998 (it is currently being piloted in around 250 schools) many smaller schools will be forced to choose between the vocational and academic pathways anyway because they will not be large enough to offer both routes.

Also, because the part one GNVQ is the equivalent of two GCSEs, some pupils may be reluctant to spend so much of their curriculum time studying one subject at the expense of the opportunity of getting a GCSE in another subject.

Paul Halfpenny, head of business studies at Fakenham High School and College in Norfolk, offers sixth form students a plethora of choices right across the academic and vocational spectrum. This includes intermediate and advanced GNVQs in business, Cambridge A-levels in business studies or business studies and economics and a London A-level in business studies which emphasises information technology. In the lower sixth form, 55 students are taking a business A-level and 10 are taking the GNVQ.

The GNVQs are attractive to students who are less capable of recalling knowledge and less skilful at examinations. It suits students who enjoy organising their course work, investigating businesses, doing research in the field and managing their own time.

On the other hand, the Cambridge A-level the school offers is taught more traditionally and relies far less heavily on IT. This is offered to those students who are happier being taught didactically, who are interested in economics and who need more nurturing. The London A-level is a half-way house between GNVQs and more traditional A-levels. There is coursework but there are also terminal exams.

Mr Halfpenny would be concerned about any narrowing of this range of opportunities. The six staff in his department have differing strengths. "As a staff we have different sorts of skills," he says. "It's therefore natural that we should offer different types of courses to fit different types of students. The narrowing of choice would make me concerned. "

Piers Ranger, first deputy headteacher of Earlham High, a 12-18 mixed comprehensive in Norwich, which is piloting the GNVQ at part one alongside GCSE business studies, says that the GNVQ has been a very good route for the pupils who want to follow a career in business, but it is not everybody's preferred route. "We would like the diversity and opportunity of being able to offer both qualifications."

Simon MIdgley

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