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That gold standard is somewhat tarnished

GNVQs rather than A-levels are shaping up as the post-16 qualifications which can best prepare young people for life, argues Joan Solomon.

Shakespeare's Juliet and Alan Smithers are not alone in wondering what's in a name (TES, March 8). If advanced general national vocational qualifications change into "Applied A-levels" will it matter? To Professor Smithers the thought that the GNVQ may become more like old immovable "gold standard" A-level is a matter for modified rejoicing, but there are many in schools and colleges who would dread such a change. Nor, I think, would industry be pleased.

A-level has been with us for many years. Like the old Higher Certificate, the course requires a specialisation more intense than that suffered in any other European school system. It also provided us with a higher barrier to participation in post-16 education than any similar industrial country - until, that is, the arrival of GNVQ. A two-year exploration of GNVQ (advanced) in schools, and vocational science degrees in higher education, carried out by a team from Oxford University department of education, shows a whole post-16 system struggling in transition.

Through all the teething troubles of introducing a new course, some of the philosophy of GNVQ is becoming apparent in the better schools and colleges. The students are encouraged to work with a great deal of autonomy. They get grades for finding out information for themselves, for planning and evaluating their work, in addition to the quality of it. As art students have always done, they put together a portfolio of their assignments. This is to demonstrate progress in a long list of required skills. Of course this requires management of a high order from both students and teaching staff and, as Alan Smithers mentions, some have yet to achieve this. We found institutions where portfolio assessment is still something of a shambles, but in others there were numbers of students as keen to show off the contents of their portfolio to us as any young artist might be.

GNVQs also have a series of external tests which were added when the establishment found this new course rather too revolutionary. They are multiple-choice papers for which the learning regime of library and laboratory work is interrupted for class sessions in rote-learning preparation. Some seem to think that this adds "quality" to the course. Indeed some students do seem to like the reassurance of passing a hurdle external to their institution. Observation of the teaching process, however, shows a lack of match between trying to pass these factual recall tests and the aim of deep, self-motivated learning.

A-level, on the other hand, is assessed at the end of the course or the module. Some give consideration to the standard of coursework, but the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority insists that this should be less than 20 per cent of the total marks assessment. The message is clear. Steady work, progress, initiative, learning skills and autonomy will not be recognised. All that counts is getting to a high standard in rather abstract ideas. Without the reassurance of a progression of work graded to known criteria, it often happens that students get discouraged along the way, or astonished if they fail. No wonder then, that so many drop out during the course (nearly 50 per cent fail or drop out in physics).

In 1985 the Higginson Report highlighted the extreme specialisation that A-level demanded. Since then students have made their feelings clear through a huge rise in the number choosing mixed arts and science subjects for A-level. Leaks from the Dearing committee suggest that the number of subjects taken will increase. But if there is still no credit for learning initiative and continuous assignments it is possible that doing five A-level type examinations may prove even more forbidding than at present.

Is A-level a true "gold-standard"? Our study of science admissions tutors and students on vocational courses in higher education would not support such a view. Tutor after tutor maintained that they had statistics to show, quite conclusively, that there was no correlation between entry grade in A-level and the final class of degree obtained. Admissions tutors who had not collected statistics always refused to credit this finding, as may many readers. But analysis of our own first-year student questionnaire data also showed no significant differences between low or high grades in A-level with respect to methods of study, worry over mathematics, or feelings of readiness for university.

Finally many of the students, whether those with recent memories of A-level, or those who could compare it with the whole degree course, did not rate it highly. They had had to learn for themselves how to use university libraries and to work in groups after the rather huge numbers in lectures. For some the sharpest learning legacy from A-level was how to cram for exams and the tension this induced. A few told us that they could neither sleep or keep their food down before exams. Looking back there was even a view that A-level had been the most difficult experience of their lives - "Horrible, I would never, never do that again!".

Industry should have a strong voice in the structure and assessment of vocational courses. Our interviews with industrialists suggest that core skills and an ability to learn are at the top of their list. Abstract knowledge comes a good deal further down. Memorisation of facts comes lower still. As one industrialist put it, "When we want a report we don't shut the employee away for three hours without books. We give them three weeks and ask them to find out everything they can". That sounds a good deal like GNVQ.

Learning methods are of crucial importance in post-16 education both to motivate disaffected students and enable them to study, and to prepare them for frequent retraining. There are some encouraging signs from GNVQ classrooms but, as it stands, A-level contributes rather less to these aims. It has much to learn from GNVQs.

Dr Joan Solomon is lecturer in research, department of educational studies, Oxford University.

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