Two surveys have gone a long way to dispelling doubts about GNVQs as a pathway to higher education.
Vocational students at school and college are fast becoming real contenders in the race for university and college degree and diploma places.
University admissions tutors who viewed the guinea-pigs doing General National Vocational Qualifications with circumspection a year ago are now welcoming them as worthy opponents of those would-be students with A-levels.
Evidence from two surveys supports this. One, carried out by The TES, gauges the views of sixth-form and college teachers in their dealings with the universities and colleges of HE. The other (see opposite) studies the responses of admissions tutors when asked about their entry requirements.
The evidence must, however, be viewed with caution as a rather different picture has emerged from research by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) into the success of the first Advanced GNVQ students seeking HE places and the wider response of admissions tutors. The results went to ministers this week and are understood to confirm that, while progress has been made in establishing the GNVQ as an alternative to A-level for higher education as well as industry, some people need more convincing, particularly in the universities.
Moreover, teachers in the TES survey said that many admissions tutors were concerned that, given the broad ability range at which GNVQ is targeted, many students will have increasingly unrealistic expectations.
A study that the Further Education Unit and the National Foundation for Educational Research published last December showed that two-thirds of Advanced GNVQ students and almost half the Intermediate students expected to go on to higher education, but they were unlikely to make it, given their low GCSE grades. Eight out of ten Intermediate and one in three Advanced GNVQ students have no more than two GCSEs at grades A-C.
The TES surveyed 50 schools, sixth-form and FE colleges on their dealings with admissions tutors. A pattern soon emerged. Central admissions tutors painted a more pessimistic picture of a vocational student's chances than did the subject tutors. Teachers indicated that while 44 per cent of central admissions tutors said students' chances would be poor, subject tutors in the same institutions often said there was every chance of success.
There appears to be a real shift in support of GNVQs, which are currently being taken by 163,000 teenagers - a figure that is expected to rise to 250,000 in September. "Whole areas of resistance are breaking down," said one. Another said: "Engineering departments which, six months ago, would not look at a GNVQ now say they will take students with distinctions provided they have some supplementary maths studies."
There has been a surge of interest within science departments, most notably for combined honours and general degrees. Almost two-thirds of college and school teachers reported "vastly improved" prospects for students now, compared with six months ago. This is very promising, considering that the Advanced GNVQ in science only became available nationally last autumn. Like the engineers, however, scientists said the GNVQ was let down by insufficient maths.
This also emerged as a a less serious stumbling block in business studies and geography, but it did not stop tutors giving considerable support for GNVQs.
Commenting on the TES findings, Malcolm Deere, secretary of UCAS, said: "It confirms our gut feeling that awareness is being raised. Yes, our efforts are paying off, but we are not there yet."
There was also evidence that some subject tutors are becoming burdened with demands for information from students and teachers. A report will soon be published by the Further Education Unit and UCAS to promote compacts between higher education and schools, in an effort to improve communications and give admissions tutors a clearer picture of what GNVQ students can do.
Last year, most admissions tutors backed a UCAS call to guarantee all GNVQ students' interviews for degree places. Since they were guinea-pigs, it was felt they needed some positive discrimination.
Last year 750 out of the 900 Advanced GNVQ students who applied moved on to higher education, most on business studies, art and design and leisure and tourism-related degrees and diplomas. Guaranteed interviews are unlikely to last many years as another 11 Advanced GNVQ study areas are phased in.