Single track for sheep and goats

If GNVQ is to avoid poor-relation status, all pupils should have some vocational education, and the parallel routes should be combined under one umbrella qualification, says college principal Anne Smith. The introduction of vocational education at key stage 4 should make all pupils aware of the varieties of, and routes to, employment when they leave the compulsory period of education. Careers and vocational guidance should emphasise both employment as the eventual aim, and lifetime learning as progression from Year 11. That is not, I am afraid, how it will turn out.

To introduce, as proposed, a course called GNVQ Part 1 will be to invite only those pupils who anticipate continuing to Part 2 to consider it. Teachers will alert those unlikely to get their GCSEs to a new opportunity in which they may do better; able pupils will use the time to work for even more GCSEs.

Average size schools will not be large enough to offer the small number of pupils taking the course more than one vocational area, probably business studies, as it is the least occupationally specific. If only the least academic pupils take the course, it will be offered at Foundation level only.

All this is bad enough - son of the now discredited Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education. But GNVQ is not CPVE. In my college the numbers following the course already exceed the Government's targets of 25 per cent of all young people aged 16-18. We offer GNVQ in six vocational areas at three levels. While the Foundation courses do offer the chance of success to those students who have experienced only failure so far, our first Advanced graduates are already at university. Increasingly, able students are making a real choice between the two advanced paths. If GNVQ is devalued at KS4, choice will be decreased.

If there is anything to be said for broadening the pre-16 curriculum, it should be available, indeed compulsory, for all pupils. It should not become an opportunity for identifying the hewers of wood and drawers of water even earlier, but should offer clear advantages to pupils of all abilities. Can this be done? We believe it can.

Using the content of GCSE subjects, all pupils should, at least once during their last two years of compulsory education, follow assignments which will accredit the mandatory GNVQ core skills: communication, application of number and information technology. One of the advantages of the GNVQ approach is that students know at the beginning of an assignment what they are to be assessed on. Pupils would be made aware of core skills assessment.

The least academic pupils might be able to reach level 1 in each skill, or fewer, giving them a sense of achievement. The most academic, however, should reach level 3 in all three, although GCSE itself is a level 2 qualification. In this way, some should be able to achieve success where they might not otherwise do so, while others would be stretched beyond what GCSE usually allows.

This experience of the way GNVQ is taught would allow all pupils a better choice at 16 between the academic path which they know and the vocational style which they do not recognise.

This process would be greatly enhanced if it were to continue for all students beyond 16, so that whatever their courses they could attempt to improve their core skills levels. An advanced GNVQ student (who gains the equivalent of two GCE A-levels) must also attain level 3 in the mandatory core skills; a student following GCE advanced levels need not.

So the two-A-level-student is educationally disadvantaged, while a "good" A-level student, studying, say, physics, mathematics, and further mathematics, may find communication difficult at any level. Accrediting core skills at 16-plus, and insisting that students with narrow curricula take extra modules, would broaden the academic curriculum and improve post-16 progression.

If, later, schools and colleges decided to add accreditation of the non-mandatory skills - problem-solving, working with others and personal development - the less academic might achieve at a high level in the latter two areas.

Providing three pathways to learning post-16 - AAS level, GNVQ and NVQ - has been an improvement on the previous single pathway. But training for the future must allow for people to change their routes, and if adults change their minds, we cannot be surprised if youngsters do, too. What can we do for students who decide that they are on the wrong path? With no tracks between the paths, we can only advise them to retrace their steps and start again. How wasteful!

A student who leaves a GNVQ course uncompleted will have accreditation for completed modules, but a student who leaves an A-level course halfway through will have achieved nothing measurable except an extra year on hisher age. We need modular A-levels with interim as well as final accreditation, and we need to be able to use at least part of this to give credit for prior learning when a student wants to change direction.

We must have, too, one title for the final achievement at 18. It is part of human nature that where there are two titles they should achieve a rank order: so GCSE could only succeed if O-level disappeared, and all the polytechnics are now universities. In the same way, we are not honest if we offer free tuition to some students, those who follow the traditional pathway at the traditional ages, and not to those who wish to take other paths.

Nor do we help the cause of lifetime learning if we count as success only those qualifications achieved at the notionally "right" age. Whatever we may think of the league tables, they commemorate success as well as identifying weakness; and students who gain qualifications a year early or a year late are not publicly recognised. But not all courses are time-constrained, and they should not be constrained by reporting mechanisms.

Lifetime learning will become more than a slogan when we acknowledge that it is vital that people continue to learn, and that is more important than the fact that some learn quickly and others more slowly.

* Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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