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Small sixth forms may be too narrow for vocational track

Students taking vocational qualifications in small sixth forms could face problems getting a university place because their studies are not broad enough, according to new research, writes Lucy Ward.

A study by universities, further education colleges and the admissions service (UCAS) reveals that the skills demanded by higher education admissions tutors for some programmes are included only in the optional units of advanced general national vocational qualifications - units which are usually offered only in larger post-16 institutions.

The findings could call into question "the wisdom of relatively small sixth forms attempting to mount GNVQ programmes", concludes the report, based on research carried out mainly in Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology and the University of the West of England, Bristol.

The comment could mean a rethink for smaller schools considering extending their sixth-form curriculum to include vocational qualifications. In order to achieve the necessary breadth of courses, such schools are likely to have to seek greater collaboration in consortia with other schools or with colleges.

Highlighting a further issue of concern for all GNVQ students hoping to go on to higher education, the report notes their courses do not necessarily equip them with essay-writing skills. As a result, say the authors, they could be at a disadvantage on entering HE, where so much assessment is based on essay-writing.

In general, however, the study, entitled "Practical progression", finds GNVQs provide a solid preparation for students going on to university. That conclusion will prove particularly encouraging for further education colleges, which tend to offer a far higher proportion of vocational courses than A-levels.

It provides some evidence to counteract persistent suggestions that HE institutions, particularly the old universities, remain suspicious of GNVQs, preferring students with the traditional clutch of A-levels.

Despite reservations over GNVQ students' lack of essay-writing skills, the research suggests there is generally a good match between teaching and learning styles used on the GNVQ programmes investigated and on the relevant higher education courses. But the report emphasises the need to ensure applicants have at least the essential entry criteria specified if they are to cope with the HE programme.

The authors also predict HE institutions will need to publish detailed entry requirements for each of the programmes they offer if they are to match applicants to places adequately.

The "supreme importance of clear and explicit entry criteria" will become even more important as entry qualifications become more modular, they add. "The more flexible the curriculum, the stronger is the requirement actively and positively to shape it."

There will also have to be more guidance on both post-16 and HE institutions to ensure students take the GNVQ units they need to apply for their university programes.

The close matching of entry programmes to HE courses is particularly effective between local institutions, the report concludes. Since students are increasingly opting for a university close to home, close links between schools and colleges and neighbouring higher education insitutions are likely to become even more valuable.

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