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Contestants line up to trial exam

Up to 300 schools will be nominated by exam bodies to compete for contracts to pilot the new General National Vocational Qualifications for 14-year-olds from next September.

After months of disagreement over how the courses will be examined, plans for pilots in business studies, health and social care and manufacturing were launched this week. Successful schools will win grants of at least Pounds 10,000.

The new Part I GNVQ - equal to half a full award currently available for those over 16 - will be the most monitored course ever introduced in the compulsory school years.

Around a third of the competing schools are expected to win contracts. They will be scrutinised by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the three big exam bodies: the Business and Technology Education Council, City and Guilds and the Royal Society of Arts.

Two likely areas for piloting - art and design, and leisure and tourism - were excluded either because school and college inspectors were concerned about quality post-16 or because schools lacked resources. Manufacturing will only be a small pilot as there are concerns in SCAA about levels of understanding industry in schools.

A second pilot phase for additional subjects is likely in 1996, depending on the progress of the first. The biggest question mark still remains over the shape of assessment and how much the curriculum content needs to be spelled out.

As expected, the basic assessment will involve multiple-choice question papers and competence tests to assess mastery of the vocational area. These will determine a pass or fail. Extension tests will be available for pupils thought capable of a merit or distinction.

One criticism of the testing scheme post-16 has been that students can keep taking the tests until they pass. The number of resits of extension tests is to be strictly limited.

The rigour of assessed coursework will be checked by "controlled assignments" set by either the exam body or school and then used as a comparative check on standards by the exam bodies.

* The quality of assessment in the level 3 GNVQ or vocational A-level was attacked by the head of a large exam group this week. Dr Michael Halstead, secretary of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, said compared with traditional A-levels, they were a "doddle". Education minister Tim Boswell, however, rebuffed criticisms at a conference in Cambridge. He insisted that critical accounts of inspectors' reports on them had been exaggerated.

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