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Students rush into vocational alternative

More than 7,000 students are doing the new advanced General National Vocational Qualification in science despite attempts by the architects of the courses to put them off for a year.

The rush to sign up for the courses, available nationally this year for the first time, comes despite warnings from the National Council for Vocational Qualifications that weaknesses identified in last year's pilot for 900 students were still to be rectified.

A survey by the council also shows two-thirds of all GNVQ science students intend to go to university, a further indication that the courses are seen as a serious route to higher education.

The clamour for an alternative to A-level in all subjects underlines the urgency with which academic and vocational qualifications must be shown to be equally demanding. Last year the NCVQ tried to put a brake on expansion to allow time to make necessary improvements.

A policy group of senior Government education and employment officials, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the NCVQ, met last week to consider a range of options and a plan of action, headed jointly by the organisations' chairmen, Sir Ron Dearing and Michael Heron.

The options included making SCAA responsible for both GNVQs and A-levels, setting up a joint committee to develop and approve both, and the longer-term prospect of a merger of the two courses. There was considerable support for a broadly common curriculum and choice of assessment regimes. This would win the backing of school and college heads in the state and private sectors. They proposed a common 14-19 curriculum last term and said the choice of modular or end-of-course assessment should be left to the market-place.

But one of the first priorities agreed by both councils is to work out how far a choice between A-levels and GNVQs in specific subjects is justified: whether it helps to attract new recruits or simply offers choice for the sake of it.

This could lead to some subjects being excluded from either the A-level or the GNVQ pathway.

Pressure is on the joint task force of the NCVQ and SCAA to get the GNVQs right, partly because A-levels and GCSEs are currently being reformed.

The speed of uptake has also been much greater than expected. Recruitment figures have repeatedly outstripped expectations. Government officials predicted that 100,000 students would sign up for eight GNVQ subjects this year, but 161,000 are now doing them.

Predictions for this autumn are around 200,000 for 11 subjects, but they are likely to exceed 250,000. This is well ahead of the Government's plan for 350,000 students - half the age group - by 1997-98.

The rise is partly due to the conversion of traditional courses such as the BTEC national diplomas into GNVQs. But a considerable proportion are seeking alternatives to A-level and GCSE resits.

Some universities are also bringing renewed pressure on the NCVQ to prove that advanced GNVQs are equal to A-levels. A small but significant minority of tutors speaking at the Association for Science Education annual meeting in Lancaster last week attacked them as"second-rate" (see page 6).

But the spotlight is on GNVQs as never before with the decision of Sir Ron Dearing to have a part I course for 14-year-olds, bringing the new vocational courses within the compulsory school years.

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