A survey of 256 English and Welsh school sixth forms, carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research, revealed that "parity of esteem" between work-related and academic options was a long way off, with many teachers giving students a clear impression that general national vocational qualifications were "second best".
But despite the status gap, many schools believed GNVQs would encourage more teenagers to stay on at school and enable sixth forms to cater for a wider ability range.
Vocational students at many of the 22 schools visited by the NFER team complained that they were left on the sidelines, with A-level students the centre of attention.
One sixth-former said: "GNVQ students here . . . don't exist." Another commented: "The teachers made it seem like it would be a step down to do GNVQ."
Sixth-form tutors told the researchers that parents were often ignorant of and uncertain about vocational qualifications and that their negative opinions were influencing students. One tutor suggested that "parents see a distinct hierarchy, with GNVQ at the bottom".
The authors of the Sixth Form Options report, Dr Sandie Schagen, Fiona Johnson and Clare Simkin, say this lack of esteem is a source of tension which staff may be unable to resolve completely.
Dr Schagen said: "The nature of the GNVQ may mean this conflict with A-level is unavoidable. The qualification was introduced to offer something to those who weren't quite up to A-level and teachers are delighted that more of those pupils are staying on. But because the entry requirements for GNVQ are lower, young people taking them almost inevitably get the message that their qualifications are of less value."
The study says staff could help by re-examining their advice to Year 11 students on which post-16 route to take.
But positive responses to the GNVQ do feature in the survey. Asked in 1994 if they felt the qualification was likely to change the character of their sixth form, 62 schools said it would result in an increased staying-on rate, 32 said it would enable a broader range of abilities to be catered for and 18 felt it would make sixth forms appear less academically elitist.
In some cases the new mix of students on vocational and academic courses had given all students, including those doing more theoretical A-levels, "a greater understanding of business links and the world of work".
Sixth Form Options also concludes that money worries often have a major impact on a pupil's educational life beyond 16. Thirty-eight per cent of schools reported that financial problems had at some time prevented young people from staying on for sixth-form study, frequently because they needed to work to support their families. Many students were trying to combine sixth-form work with part-time jobs - and their school performance was suffering as a result.
The NFER found sixth forms battling to hold their own in the face of increasingly fierce competition from FE colleges. Six out of 10 sixth forms now advertise to attract students from other schools, according to the survey, while less than four out of 10 allow FE college representatives on to their premises to talk to students.
Interviewees expressed "considerable concern" over the "slick" marketing strategies adopted by some colleges, such as "cold calling" Year 11 pupils at home. But the NFER is worried that tutors' desire not to lose pupils to the FE sector may be preventing them from giving impartial guidance.
Dr Schagen said: "We were very concerned that some tutors are not encouraging students to look elsewhere and that some end up doing a particular course simply because it is available at their school, when they would be much better off doing another subject at an FE college."
Sixth Form Options: post-compulsory education in maintained schools (Pounds 9), from dissemination unit, National Foundation for Educational Research, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough, Berkshire SL1 2DQ, Tel 01753 574123.
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