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Independents get taste for GNVQs

Independent schools are shaking off their traditional academic image by offering new vocational courses to sixth-formers.

After years of being staunch defenders of A-levels, independent schools are starting to recognise general national vocational qualifications as a way to expand sixth forms and attract a wider range of students.

Next term, teachers at independent schools which offer GNVQs are expected to launch a forum to highlight the advantages of vocational programmes and to persuade colleagues elsewhere to go down the same route.

Leading the campaign is Janet Catchpole, GNVQ co-ordinator at Finborough school in Stowmarket, Suffolk. Although the school only has about 200 students from age seven upwards, its sixth form has doubled to 26 since it started offering the qualification in 1996.

Mrs Catchpole said her school was retaining students who would otherwise have left at 16. It also receives applications from students at schools which do not offer GNVQs.

Students enjoy spending one day per week with local employers. "It's a way to improve social skills and make them familiar with the world of work," she said.

Teachers will stress the value of key skills - communication, numeracy and information technology - which are so far only compulsory for GNVQs.

Forty of the 500 sixth-formers at Millfield School in Somerset are taking the qualification. Nick Williams, Millfield's GNVQ co-ordinator, said the school was being contacted by smaller schools which see it as a way to expand their sixth forms.

While Millfield offers a choice of GNVQs or A-levels, St Edmund's College in Ware, Hertfordshire, insists sixth-formers take one A-level with the GNVQ to maximise their chances of getting to university.

A study carried out last year by Michael Coates for the Independent Schools Joint Council found that just 50 out of the 620 independent schools with sixth forms offered GNVQs.

He believes the take-up will increase significantly only if schools get together and start spreading the message.

Kingham Hill School in Oxfordshire, which caters for a large number of students with special needs, has seen its sixth form grow from fewer than 20 students to nearly 60 since launching GNVQs three years ago.

Sue Clark, head of GNVQs in business, said a student with dyslexia had dictated their responses to a practical assignment on to a cassette while another had done a video presentation. "You can tell from day one which students can't cope with A-levels and need an alternative to the enclosed exam environment."

Yet Janet Catchpole recognises that independent schools face a further major hurdle - selling GNVQs to parents. "A-levels will always be the gold standard. That is what parents want. We've had one or two problems with parents who only wanted their children to do A-levels because that is all they know about."

Neil Merrick

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