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Problems more newsworthy than progress

The Further Education Development Agency (FEDA) is concerned that publication of its report into general national vocational qualifications has been overshadowed by press reports that spoke of failure and doubts.

Despite this suggestion of failure, the mood of the conference that launched the report two weeks ago was confident and positive about the development of GNVQs.

The report, written by Professor Alison Wolf, was the result of research funded by the Nuffield Foundation and FEDA.

Delegates to the launch conference included inspectors, teachers and managers from schools and colleges, local education authorities, employer representatives and officers from national agencies.

The research provides powerful data on the impact and role of the new qualification, and points to such issues as the uneven take-up across subject areas, which raises important policy issues.

The danger, however, is that the report exaggerates newsworthy problems at the expense of success. Sir Michael Heron noted: "The British love heroic failure, but are shy and self-deprecating when successful."

The mood of optimism among delegates at the conference derived from an awareness that much progress has been made in establishing the GNVQ.

It is a qualification that has rapidly gaining popularity among learners and teachers for its active and participative style of learning, and its focus on the development of learners' ability to plan and monitor their own achievement. This distinctive learning style is highly valued.

The report highlights a lack of progression routes from GNVQ to employment, but, as delegates heard, a great deal of work is in hand to improve this aspect. FEDA, the National Council of Industry Training Organisations (NCITO) and the National Council of Vocational Qualifications are working closely together to develop employer awareness and provide materials and strategies to support providers in improving the vocational relevance of their provision.

Andy Powell, chief executive of the NCITO, emphasised progress being made: "As employers become more involved with the development of GNVQs, their relevance and attractiveness to both employers and students will increase. Together with FEDA we are working with a range of employers in steel, telecoms, hospitality and other areas, to develop the vocational dimension of GNVQs."

The importance attached to key skills by employers and higher education was noted. As conference delegate Tim Potter from Lewisham College pointed out, while the delivery and assessment of key skills may be difficult, "at least we are trying".

The GNVQ is the only qualification that is trying to deliver skills that are universally regarded as essential.

Sir Michael Heron and other delegates also referred to the benefits of the unit structure of GNVQs, which offer much greater flexibility than A-levels.

The availability of unit certification means that drop-out, or non-completion, of GNVQs does not always imply non-achievement. This is a qualification that enables varied patterns of achievement, and achievement over time. However, reasons for non-completion, and actual patterns of achievement need to be better understood, and the Department for Education and Employment has recently contracted FEDA to carry out research to examine non-completion in more detail.

Several delegates, including Paul Johnson, HMI, referred to the recent report by the Office for Standards in Education on standards of achievement in GNVQs in sixth forms, published three weeks ago.

The report, Evolution of GNVQs, presents a very positive picture of the GNVQ and points to improved standards of assessment, and a very close correlation of standards of achievement between A-level and GNVQ grades.

The report provides clear evidence that learners on GNVQ advanced-level programmes generally have lower GCSE point scores than A-level students.

Some of these learners, however, are achieving standards comparable with the best A-level students as I noted. This is clear evidence that the GNVQ is providing a real alternative 16-plus, and making a positive contribution to achievement levels.

The picture is not a gloomy one for the GNVQ. There are policy issues to address but these do not negate the fact that the GNVQ has an important and growing role within the qualifications framework. Indeed, the conference recommended that we rename it - the good news vocational qualification.

Stephen Crowne is chief executive of the Further Education Development Agency. Evolution of GNVQs - enrolment and delivery patterns and their policy implications is available at Pounds 12 from FEDA. Fax orders to publications department on 01761 463140.

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