Diploma fears as pupils shun vocational exams

Vocational exams which are seen as precursors for major new diploma courses are attracting only handfuls of students.

Only 61 sixth-formers took vocational A-levels in manufacturing this year.

For retail, the figure was 151; for hospitality and catering, 185; and for construction and the built environment, the figure was 318. Some 250,000 students received their A-level results last week.

The statistics will be of serious concern for ministers who want to persuade teenagers to take specialised diplomas in all these subjects from 2008.

Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary, said last year that she hoped that in time the majority of sixth-formers would opt for these new courses.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham university, said the figures showed that vocational education in schools is "largely a fiction".

Vocational A-levels, which used to be known as advanced general national vocational qualifications (GNVQs), have similarities with the new diploma courses, he said.

The courses are available in three sizes, worth two, one and half an A-level. Each also attempts to assess cross-curricular skills, such as numeracy and communication skills.

Numbers taking them fell 17 per cent this year, from 76,193 to 63,036, most of which consist of entries for just three subjects: information technology; business; and health and social care.

Professor Smithers said: "This year's A-level results sounded the death-knell of the GNVQ concept." The relative success of business and ICT was unsurprising, given that they were mainstream A-level subjects. Health and social care seemed to have succeeded because employers valued the courses, he said.

Yet it was not clear that this had been the case for the other subjects.

Schools also found it difficult to run them. And Professor Smithers said students were preferring to keep their options open by choosing smaller courses which could be combined with other subjects.

GNVQs at GCSE level are dominated by the ICT course, which Professor Smithers said was not obviously vocational. Numbers for most other subjects have fallen sharply in recent years.

He said: "There are lessons here for the Government: employment-orientated courses only work in schools if they are directly connected to an attractive field of employment.

"It is hoped the Government's diplomas will address this. But will the students want to take them?"

Diplomas, described by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority as the most exciting exams being developed anywhere in the world, are widely seen as the last chance for vocational qualifications to work on a large scale in schools.

A QCA spokesman said it was not fair to judge work-related provision simply on vocational A-levels. Other courses, such as Btecs, OCR Nationals and City and Guilds qualifications, were taken by tens of thousands of students every year. He said: "Diplomas should not be seen as successor qualifications for (vocational A-levels). They are something radically different, which will combine academic learning with vocational studies."

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