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A-levels in poll position in practical study race

Students are clamouring to study practical subjects at college through the traditional A-level route despite the growth of general national vocational qualifications.

Latest exam board figures show an 80 per cent increase in the uptake of courses such as business studies, photography, law, art and design, and psychology over the past five years. The increase has continued in the four years since GNVQs came on the scene.

The studies are extremely popular in further education colleges since they are easy to run as modular courses alongside GNVQs. The large tertiary colleges also have well-equipped studios and the resources to expand the range of courses relatively cheaply.

But many leading academics and examiners believe this growth in popularity is only adding to the confusion over the relative standards of A-levels and the GNVQ at advanced level.

Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment studies at Manchester University, said that while a vocational alternative to A-levels remains an appealing notion, its content and assessment has not been properly worked out.

"A lot of people are attracted to applied learning when they can see the relevance of what they are learning rather than learning for its own sake. The problem with GNVQs is that they are an excellent idea but they have gone off half-cocked."

In areas of overlap between GNVQs and A-levels, the new qualification continues to come off worse. With more than 6,000 students, GNVQ business is the most popular choice and accounts for half the candidates at advanced level. But 24,000 are studying its A-level equivalent, outnumbering them by four to one.

Over the same period, the popularity of straight academic choices like economics, geography and history has declined, indicating a demand among pupils for more occupational qualifications. It is a trend which exam boards and leading academics insist ministers must watch when considering the future of A-levels.

Professor Smithers, said that instead of offering more work-related topics at A-level, a stronger distinction between academic and practical subjects was needed.

"A sensible separation would be if A-levels were about subjects - like English, history or geography which are ways of making sense of the world - and GNVQs should be about applied education."

With advanced-level GNVQs still struggling with problems of style and content, they are in danger of becoming the poor relations of traditional A-levels, educationalists and trainers warn.

They want Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, to guard against this in his overhaul of 16 to 19 qualifications.

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