The GNVQ spirit is betrayed by cruel rigour

WHEN I was an O-level English teacher, there were two openings to essays which made my heart sink. Both were frequently used. The first was "There are many kinds of ...." which could be applied to almost any subject. The second, revealing the writer to be still more desperate, was also multi-purpose. It was "the dictionary describes ... as ..."

Nevertheless, I was forced back to the dictionary myself recently. I had thought my knowledge of English vocabulary to be fairly sophisticated, but had become aware that the meaning of the word "rigour" seemed to have escaped me. Who am I, I thought, to contradict university professors and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, leave alone other eminent educationists? If they believe that rigour must be assessed by means of written examination, what temerity would be shown in arguing with them. So I consulted the dictionary.

That doesn't have anything in it about the administration of rigour, although there is as usual enough there to fire the imagination. Rigour is about lack of flexibility; "rigorous" means "unyielding", even "cruel". Rigour is clearly a Gradgrindian characteristic, and something that is divorced from diversity as well as from inclusiveness. Why was I not more surprised?

The application of more rigour to general national vocational qualifications through the new model pilot has indeed been cruel to some students, notably those who have completed foundation or intermediate GNVQs in every respect except the written application of number test, and have thus achieved nothing. Never mind that the test is actually a mathematics, not an application of number, test. Never mind that they have had to demonstrate that they can apply mathematical concepts appropriately in their assignments. Never mind that they passed in their other assignments and written tests, and never mind that they wanted to study GNVQ because it was designed to be different from the style of learning at which they had previously failed.

None of that matters. A rigorous interpretation of the qualification means that the failure of this one test must invalidate all their other achievements over the year. The application of rigour to the pilot, although it is cruel, inflexible and unyielding, will nevertheless give the qualification what it needs to earn the respect of educationists, politicians and civil servants. So that's all right.

It would be perverse to point out that the above educationists, politicians and civil servants are not those to whom foundation or intermediate students look for progression to the next stage of their careers. The employers and colleges who can help already respect what students are doing and ware prepared to give credit for what has been achieved so far. With any luck their support will prevent the students from feeling a renewed sense of failure.

But there is more to it than this. The Government is committed to a more inclusive approach to education and training, one which will ensure that all 16-year-olds can find an appropriate course leading to a qualification and forming the foundation for his or her lifelong learning. How can this be done unless there are courses where the assessment methods are different from those which turn people off in the first place? Does the Government know, or does anyone know, what a GNVQ is for?

Back in the days of one-nation Major, I think it was for education for all - we didn't say "inclusive" and "widening participation" then. The problem may have arisen from the interpretation of "education for all". Perhaps some saw it from the beginning as suitable for less able students looking for less rewarding jobs, and have only now become alarmed at the prospect of so many of them going to university and getting degrees and taking good jobs away from A-level students. It was also intended to win back the disaffected by giving them learning styles which they might prefer to the serried ranks style of learning. Maybe it still is, by some. But as the assessment techniques and the content come nearer and nearer to academic content and techniques, so the disaffected are less and less likely to be re-enchanted.

The time-limited nature of the qualification is not a problem for the disaffected, who by and large want a course which gives maximum pay-out for minimum expenditure of time and effort, but for the slower learners. The race, it seems, is for the quick as well as for the bright. But you can get grade eight piano after learning the instrument for three years or 30; the grade still tells you the level you have now reached. Once you've passed your driving test, you have equal rights with other drivers, not limited by how many times you had to take the test.

Dealing with people, and finding out what is best for them, is not a rigorous science. We are flexible, various, diverse, and we need to be treated as such.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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