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Reforms urged to ease assessment

Schools and colleges have staggered under the bureaucratic burden of GNVQs. Now an inquiry is seeking to lift the load, reports Ian Nash. Far-reaching reforms to ease the assessment burden on students and teachers are urged in the report of an official inquiry into the Government's flagship vocational qualifications.

The key recommendation is for a drastic cut in the assessment and recording workload, reducing the grip that NVQ-style skills testing has had on general national vocational qualifications.

But schools and colleges are unlikely to feel the benefits for 18 months to two years, as the National Council for Vocational Qualifications is to set up working parties to analyse each of the 19 recommendations. It will then introduce new pilot programmes to test the proposed reforms.

The council is clearly cautious since it has expressed concern that the problems of assessment, the burdensome bureaucracy and complex jargon - all criticised in the report - have resulted from the GNVQ taking off too quickly.

Around 185,000 school and college students signed up for GNVQs last year, and recruitment is expected to top 250,000 this year, despite the council warnings that the popularity could make the necessary monitoring unwieldy.

But the choice of gradual reform has none the less angered heads and principals. John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association, told The TES: "This report has cut a swath through the unreasonable bureaucratic demands of GNVQ assessment. We want to speed up the implementation of this report, not slow it down. I believe this can be done without sacrificing the rigour."

A warning against too long a delay has come from the chairman of the inquiry committee, John Capey, principal of Exeter College. "Remember what Nick Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, said about the need to slim the national curriculum.

"He said that the failure to take the volume of opinion seriously, and to act on it fast enough, had increased the burdens on schools. We have to take the volume of evidence seriously now."

That evidence presents a major fillip for the NCVQ at one level, since it overwhelmingly supports GNVQs. There is also extensive commitment from schools and colleges.

John Hillier, chief executive of the council, said: "We all understand that there is some room for improvement, but this can only be seen as an outstanding achievement for a qualification that has only been around for three years. "

More than 400 responses were received in the five-month inquiry, commissioned by the NCVQ. They called for a simplification of assessment and recording, improvements in the grading schemes and removal of the jargon which was alienating students and teachers.

The review group was impressed by the "positive attitudes" of students and teachers towards the philosophy of GNVQs. But there were numerous complaints about the lack of guidance to the assessment centres, and the inadequate spread of good models of practice to schools and colleges.

The report calls for a shift from element-based to unit-based assessment. There are hundreds of elements but only 12 units for an advanced GNVQ, so the cut in workloads would be substantial. It backs the call for a more flexible pick-and-mix 16-plus curriculum along Dearing lines.

The NCVQ and SCAA are confident that changes can be introduced gradually without hampering the wider urgent reforms of the post-14 curriculum to include the GNVQ Part I as a vocational option.

But school and college heads are seeking more than this. Mr Dunford said: "We expect this to lead to a single code of practice for all advanced-level assessment, both A-levels and GNVQs, and to bring us back to the point where the curriculum leads assessment, and not vice versa."

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