A click in time...

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Teachers at Dixons City Technology College, Bradford, were so impressed by the vocational GCSE in applied business that they developed multi-media technology to help deliver the course.

It was difficult fitting everything into three periods per week, according to the teacher, Tony Hosker, especially when you consider the new qualification is worth twice a traditional GCSE. But the Business Interactive package developed by staff at Dixons CTC has helped to ease timetable pressures. "The kids can catch up on work at home or elsewhere because they can log onto the network at any time," says Mr Hosker.

The software (pictured above) has already proved a money-spinner for the school. By the start of this term, the school had sold the package to 120 others, suggesting that applied business is one of the most popular vocational GCSEs. Whereas Mr Hosker has 26 pupils on the course in September 2002, this year 60 enrolled. "You need strong commitment from students to get all the coursework and assessment done," he says.

It is a year since the vocational GCSE arrived in schools and colleges, and already there are signs that the new qualification is reaching its target audience. Civil servants at the Department for Education and Skills are nervous about saying too much. They will not know how many students have signed up for the qualification until they register for exams next spring.

But they report that a "promising start has been made".

Managers at OCR, one of the exam boards testing the new courses, are less equivocal. Barrie Hunt, senior manager for product development at the exam board, says there is more interest in vocational or applied GCSEs than in Part 1 GNVQs, which they replace. Even so, no clear picture has yet emerged. "The uptake is much as expected - probably a little better," he says. "It is the start of something that will grow steadily. Potentially, one fifth of our students will take at least one vocational GCSE in the short-term."

The board is particularly encouraged by the high uptake for engineering and manufacturing, as well as applied science. Where some teachers see the traditional science GCSE as being A-level driven, applied science is more attractive to youngsters who have less interest in studying the subject to a higher level.

Despite these positive signs, a lack of confidence in the new qualification is demonstrated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It has pledged not to remove foundation and intermediate GNVQs - popular alternatives for more vocationally minded teenagers - until at least 2006.

Headteachers suggest even this may be too soon. Both the Secondary Heads Association (SHA) and the Association of Colleges say the move will need careful timing. "They should continue indefinitely," says Martin Ward, SHA's deputy general secretary. "I have told QCA that, but they are working under instruction from the DfES which wants them phased out."

However, SHA is pleased that the new courses will be called "applied GCSEs" - heads believe this has broader appeal. Mr Ward thinks the courses may be held back by the perception that they are for less bright pupils. This point was also raised in a recent study by Ofsted, the inspectorate, that concluded it was vital that applied GCSEs attract a wider range of students if they were to be considered as valuable as traditional GCSEs.

John Noel, OCRs qualification manager for science, says: "When the entries come in, we will see that it is being used more for students of average or below-average ability. It's seen as being more appropriate because of its applied nature. Students can see that it has relevance and is therefore more interesting."

The courses do seem to appeal to pupils of higher ability. At Boston College, Lincolnshire, Claire George, manager of the 14-19 pathfinder programme, says that over the past year, lecturers have noticed that schools sending pupils along to weekly classes now encourage those who expect to do well to try vocationals GCSEs.

The pupils are attracted by the different learning style and better facilities at the college, especially for subjects like engineering, she says.

Ms George stresses that vocational GCSEs are not a soft option and students must be comfortable with coursework and have reasonable literacy skills.

"It is like one GCSE of theory and one GCSE of practical," she says. "They must be able to do key skills, as well as finding things out and selecting information. Traditional GCSEs are more about reading and using information to compare and contrast."

Barrie Hunt at OCR accepts that there is a tension involved in creating a qualification that is meant to be on a par with traditional GCSEs and motivate students who might otherwise drop out of education. He says, "It's created a route towards employability for pupils who are beginning to wonder what school has to offer them. There are other qualifications that are more practicalI no qualification provides everything."

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