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Consensus is that revolution was rushed

Two inspection reports on General National Vocational Qualifications come to a similar conclusion. The broad view from education, industry and commerce is that the vocational revolution in schools and colleges has been too quick and under-funded, leaving no time for proper thought about the best ways of teaching and testing.

Teachers and lecturers are buckling under the strain of up to 13 hours a week extra assessment work.

Many, faced with the prospect of 60 to 80 hours additional training to become assessors of General National Vocational Qualifications, have lost enthusiasm.

It has brought the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers to the brink of industrial action in Northern Ireland. In England and Wales too, teacher unions are reporting growing discontent, with whispers of a new boycott.

The significant advances spelled out in the two otherwise highly critical inspection reports this week are seen as all the more remarkable, given the frustrations.

They follow a number of critical reports not least from the Confederation of British Industry and Employment Department calling for reforms in the tests and more support for teachers and lecturers needing in-service training.

The National Council for Vocational Qualifications was quick to counter criticisms, insisting that six reforms demanded by Education minister Tim Boswell in March - to ensure greater quality and rigour - addressed the inspectors' demands.

John Hillier, chief executive of the NCVQ, said reforms put in place since the inspections, would reap dividends in the next six months. They were already benefiting this year's students.

With more than 250,000 signed-up to or having completed GNVQs in less than three years, the council itself was stunned at its popularity. The brakes were put on expansion, with delays to some pilot work, but students were hooked, The council insists that to revise the tests too radically would be to fail this group. "We must not simply reintroduce GCSE and A-levels. We are trying to do something different. It is no solution to simply say we should have more exams."

The Association for Colleges is also concerned at the prospect of radical changes. Much streamlining work was needed, said Ruth Gee, chief executive. "But we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. " She insisted that the general principle of assessing coursework with competence or skills tests was right. Few demurred on this. Even one of the council's harshest critics, Professor Alan Smithers of Manchester University, accepts that "GNVQ is one of the best chances we have for a real vocational alternative."

But there were many ways to assess competence other than the NVQ model, akin to the passfail of a driving test, to which the NCVQ was "ideologically committed."

A mix of practical work, written tests and externally-set assignments would be better and more cost-effective, he said.

John Bangs, education officer for the National Union of Teachers, said: "The forms of assessment are creating problems, not because they are bad in themselves but because there has been no real debate about the effects on teachers."

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