In February, the newly-formed Joint Council of the three General National Vocational Qualifications awarding bodies - BTEC, City Guilds and the RSA Examinations Board - issued a statement that GNVQs were costing the awarding bodies an average of Pounds 28 per candidate.
In profit and loss terms, this meant they had an average operating loss of Pounds 19 per person.
Martin Cross, chief executive of RSA, said: "GNVQs have rapidly developed into a high quality option for British teenagers, but there is a continuing price to pay for this vital investment, High and increasing costs are inevitable as we develop GNVQs in co-operation with schools and colleges."
Dr Nicholas Carey, director-general of City Guilds, also raised the issue of costs as something of serious concern. In the latest annual report he says: "The total cost in the assessment and monitoring of these awards (GNVQs and NVQs), including external verification, and the magnitude of the levy to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications will have to be significantly reduced and stabilised if changes to customers are to be contained."
As with all new developments, the initial start-up costs for GNVQs have been high: the three awarding bodies have spent an estimated Pounds 5 million in development work on GNVQs since they began preparatory work in 1991. A significant operating cost has been that of providing external verifiers - an essential part of quality control, but an expensive alternative to traditional written examinations. The other burden has been the cost of the levy of Pounds 9.40 per student (including VAT), payable by the awarding bodies to the NCVQ. As a goodwill gesture, NCVQ has now agreed to a "levy holiday" to start from September 1995 and continue for at least a year - a welcome sweetener which may ease the financial burden in the short term.
The financial pressure on the schools and colleges is twofold. First, there is the cost of registration. At the moment, the average registration cost per candidate for an Advanced level GNVQ is Pounds 67 to Pounds 68. (For Foundation and Intermediate levels it varies between Pounds 40 and Pounds 52). While this is higher than the examination fee for the equivalent two A-levels (averaging between Pounds 25 and Pounds 30 per subject), it compares favourably with modular A-levels which can be up to 50 per cent more expensive than ordinary A-levels.
But the registration costs are not the major issue as far as most colleges are concerned. The biggest hidden cost is that of staff time, as David Eade, principal of Barnsley College, has discovered. Barnsley College currently has about 500 students following a wide range of GNVQ programmes at all three levels. Mr Eade is committed to GNVQs and sees them as the way forward through the post-16 jungle. ("GNVQs have managed to focus on the key issues of access, independent learning, core skills, flexibility and process.") But his staff have been overwhelmed by the additional demands of preparation and assessment.
A college awareness-raising session which gave many non-teaching staff (including Mr Eade himself) hands-on experience of the assessment process was an eye-opener. "I was astonished by the volume of paperwork, the repetitive nature of some of the portfolio building and the time taken up in assessment and filing," he said. "A way of simplifying the process must be found. One way forward might be for the people that design the specifications to spend some time at grassroots level so they are able to understand the implications in practical terms."
Similar concerns, relating broadly to all the "new" vocational programmes, were raised at a conference at the end of March at Chichester College attended by FE principals and college managers. The conference highlighted the erosion of the professional autonomy of teachers and lecturers, the loss of influence of lecturers over the design and delivery of the curriculum and the increasing role of government both in what is taught and how it is assessed.
On the issue of costs, Dr James Gorrie, principal of Chichester College, made a number of salient points. First, there were the significant costs of examination and validation fees. Second, the system seemed to be paper-driven, with staff overloaded by additional development work. And third, there was the cost of assessment in terms of time. "Many course leaders are spending over a fifth of their time maintaining students' assessment records," he said.
The schools are faced with additional burdens. Unlike the further education colleges, their funding does not make allowances for the increased time and resources needed for GNVQs, although schools can access Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) funding. But as John Dunford, vice-president of the Secondary Heads Association, points out, this is only a small amount and it does not cover all the training costs or the time spent away from classes.
Other difficulties in the school sector include the lack of flexibility in timetabling, which makes it more difficult to fit in staff training. As a result of these pressures, Mr Dunford has decided to limit GNVQ expansion at his own school (Durham Johnstone comprehensive, in Durham) because he cannot afford the additional investment in the short term. Other schools are seriously considering whether they can afford to get involved in GNVQs. One in particular, has even had to spend part of its GEST money on paying the electricity bill!
The colleges are probably faring better than the schools under their funding regime.
The English Further Education Funding Council allocates the same funding to a GNVQ as to three A-levels, though the GNVQ would normally take up less time. (This would allocate a GNVQ in business Pounds 15.70 per unit - the same as three humanities A-levels).
There are also hidden costs in A-levels that are not present to the same extent in GNVQs, as Ann Davey, GNVQ coordinator at the John Ruskin College in Croydon points out. "GNVQs may be slightly more expensive than A-levels in terms of the initial registration fee, but if a student fails an A-level they get nothing to show for it. At least, if they don't pass all the GNVQ units they can be given credit for the units they have achieved and they remain registered for more than one year, so the registration fee is not wasted, " she says. John Ruskin has also found that reducing the number of "taught" hours from 15 to 12 and asking students to pay Pounds 20 to cover the costs of folders, computer disks, plastic wallets and other materials helps. GNVQs require fewer text books than A-levels (another hidden saving), but the downside is a huge bill for photocopying - each subject eats up about Pounds 80 a term.
As GNVQs become more stabilised, some of the development costs are likely to decrease, but there is still no solution to the huge cost of verification. Furthermore, the Government has given clear directives to NCVQ and the awarding bodies to strengthen their verification systems, which may mean yet more verifiers who all have to be paid.
The awarding bodies are subsequently looking very carefully at ways to reduce costs but still maintain quality.
City and Guilds is planning to simplify its administrative systems to centres and has drafted out a scheme which will allow students to access some GNVQ units without paying the full registration fee - useful for candidates who want to take GNVQ units in combination with A levels or NVQs. BTEC also sees the value in keeping the fee structure as simple as possible.
But as BTEC's chief executive, Tina Townsend, says: "Such a qualification as the GNVQ does not come cheap. Frequent tests, rigorous double-marking and the production of model assignments mean high and continuous costs for awarding bodies. The good news is that we know the qualification is worthwhile and things will stabilise."
The Employment Department has just commissioned Alison Wolf of the Institute of Education (in association with the University of Bristol) to carry out research into the possibility of using centrally set assignments as a way of reducing costs. (One unanswered question is why this is being commissioned by the Employment Department and not the Department for Education).
Professor Alan Smithers has the final say. "The more complicated the assessment system the more quality control you need. Any assessment system needs to be practical, so that it doesn't involve too much effort or time.
"Perhaps we need to look again at GNVQs to find an assessment system that ensures consistency but also fits with the time and money available. "The system at the moment is in danger of collapsing under its own weight."
Anne Nicholls is editor of Furthering Education