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In search of greater breadth and balance

Simon Midgley speaks to a college principal who is totally committed to a 14-19 curriculum

BRENDA WITTED, principal of Countesthorpe Community College in south-east Leicestershire, passionately believes in the value of lifelong learning, a 14-19 curriculum and the merits of establishing a new national school-leaving diploma recognising vocational and academic achievement.

But she feels that the reluctance of universities to recognise the value of non-traditional vocational courses and qualifications could be a major obstacle to speedy reform of pre and post-16 education.

At Ms Witted's college there are child-centred and community-based approaches to learning that earned it national prominence in the Seventies and Eighties.

Today, the 840-student college is managed along more traditional lines, although children and staff are still on first name terms and there is no uniform or lesson bell. Adult learners from local villages study at the college alongside teenagers or in evening classes.

Ms Witted feels that the universities call the tune on acceptable entry qualifications. They regard A-levels as the gold standard and GCSEs as the best predictor of future achievement. Many of the older institutions, she believes, have been slow to recognise the virtues of general national vocational qualifications or other non-traditional qualifications.

At the college, students can opt to study units from the foundation GNVQ course pre-16 and Intermediate and Advanced GNVQs post-16, alongside GCSEs and A-levels.

"Some universities have no understanding of what a merit at GNVQ Advanced involves - they are seeking distinctions," says Ms Witted. "They would not be asking A-level students to come with straight As. That is what they are asking GNVQ students."

She feels that attitudes to GCSEs are still underpinned by a nostalgia for the old days of O-levels. "Everybody still looks at A to C grades as being the equivalent of O-level. We talk about Intermediate GNVQ being the equivalent of four grade Cs at GCSE.

"Unless we introduce something that has a very different structure, we will never be able to move forward, and young people who do well within their own ability range will still feel that they're failures.

"If you take the league tables everything is measured by the numbers of A to C grades. Until you have some value-added information on the ethnic origins and socio-economic factors affecting the cohorts, a school which is doing brilliantly by their youngsters is not recognised unless they have got 65 per cent A to Cs. This is where things need to change."

Ideally, she would like to move to a system offering greater breadth and balance post-16, with varying levels of achievement.

Much could be learned, Ms Witted believes, from GNVQ assessment procedures such as monitoring, recording and carefully processing what students are able to do, rather than measuring their achievements by a three-hour test at the end of two years.

There is also tension, she says, between students working simultaneously towards GNVQ qualifications and GCSEs or A-levels. The latter involves a relatively traditional means of teaching and assessment, whereas the former requires students researching, recording and taking part in work experience placements. GNVQs can involve students missing some A-level teaching in order to complete their task-based assignments. It is not easy to marry up the vocational with the academic, she says.

Mary Neath, Countesthorpe's GNVQ co-ordinator, says that young people working towards both GNVQs and GCSEs or A-levels are often under additional pressure because they have to master the contrasting styles of learning.

The pressures of being continuously assessed, having to demonstrate key skills and to pass all parts of a GNVQ also make it, in some ways, a more time-consuming and demanding route to take.

Mrs Neath believes that some assessment is necessary at stages in students' educational careers to give them benchmarks of achievement.

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