A new road to Academe

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
Judith Compton describes the work of the GATE project which was set up to establish the credibility of Advanced GNVQs as an alternative route to higher education.

Much has been said and written about General National Vocational Qualifications and their suitability for progression to higher education courses, often based on local investigations between schools, colleges and higher education institutions. The GATE project was established in November 1993, as a joint initiative between the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to provide more support for GNVQ applicants to higher education on a national basis.

The term "GATE" is a loose acronym from the phrase "Advanced GNVQs and access to higher education" - a less than ideal title when both "advanced" and "higher" have to be dropped in its formation. The project is steered by a committee chaired by Malcolm Deere and made up of a wide range of interested parties, including higher education institutions, schools, colleges, NCVQ, awarding bodies and Government officers.

The project was initially set up to run for two years from November 1993. However, it is likely to be extended soon in recognition of both its achievements to date and the scale of work still needing to be addressed at the interface between GNVQs and higher education.

The aims of the project are as follows: * To establish the credibility of Advanced GNVQs as qualifications of comparable standard to the GCE A-levels and to promote an understanding of the new qualifications by admissions staff; * To provide information and advice on the response of higher education institutions to GNVQs and their likely acceptability for entry to higher education programmes; * To identify aspects of the GNVQ structure in need of further development from the perspective of HE progression, and to investigate how these aspects can be addressed with a view to ensuring that GNVQ provides a more effective route to a wide range of HE courses.

The project works with admissions tutors to increase the level of understanding of GNVQs inside higher education institutions, through staff development and materials to encourage higher education staff to self-educate (including a staff development pack and a booklet helping admissions tutors to interpret the GNVQ qualification). Nearby schools and colleges delivering GNVQ courses are encouraged to talk to higher education institutions.

Hopefully, as a consequence of this training, admissions tutors will be more able to decide whether GNVQ applicants would have the right academic background for their higher education courses. If specific mathematical skills or knowledge requirements are necessary for entry to particular degrees, admissions tutors are encouraged to present this information clearly to potential applicants. Where this happens, potential applicants can decide whether their Advanced GNVQ programmes have included these elements or whether additional studies are required.

At present, an investigation is being conducted to find out precise entry conditions for GNVQ applicants to HE in 1996. This information will be collated and distributed in September by UCAS, NCVQ and will be accessible on the ECCTIS careers network. Hopefully, GNVQ applicants will then find it easier to choose suitable higher education courses. Some higher education institutions are reluctant to give more than general institutional policies on GNVQs at present, until GNVQ students currently studying higher education courses have been tracked into the higher education system and it has been fully established that the new qualification does prepare students adequately for their courses.

The modular nature of the GNVQ programme, with the length of some GNVQ unit titles, has presented some students with difficulties in completing the 1995 UCAS form. A separate additional set of guidelines was produced to help GNVQ students to explain their qualifications and backgrounds in a simple way. Also, the 1996 UCAS form has been amended to give applicants more space to list the Advanced GNVQ units they have studied and additional GNVQ guidance is being prepared and will be automatically circulated in September to schools and colleges.

Applications from Advanced GNVQ students in 1995 are being monitored as they are processed through the system. This will establish whether GNVQ applicants are receiving offers and places from higher education institutions and for which courses. Information about additional studies, including additional GNVQ units, GCE A-level(s) and GCSE performance is also being considered to clarify which GNVQ applicants gain places and why. The outcomes of this investigation will be published as soon as the work is completed. The earlier 1994 investigation of GNVQ applicants revealed an encouragingly positive approach from admissions tutors. Over half the small pilot group of GNVQ applicants did receive higher education course places, mainly on courses closely related to the initial vocational title of the GNVQ. Although two-thirds of this group of GNVQ applicants gained places on degree courses, to achieve this students usually had achieved GCSEs at grade C or above in English and mathematics (in addition to core skills at level 3).

The general trend towards local progression was also evident for GNVQ applicants, who often successfully offered a small number of additional (more specialised) GNVQ units alongside their Advanced GNVQ programme. With a ten-fold increase in applications from Advanced GNVQ students - to approximately 9,600 for 1995 entry - and a broadening of GNVQ titles - the 1995 investigation should provide further information about the Advanced GNVQ as a route to higher education.

The GATE project, in its work with higher education institutions, has developed some specialised curriculum network groups to address subject-specific issues relating to GNVQ progression. Wide publicity has been given to a report about the mathematical requirements for progression to a range of degree courses. The network groups for business, health social care, leisure tourism and art design have advised awarding bodies about suitable optional units and will look at clusters of GNVQ units suited to particular progression routes. Also, these groups are creating higher education-based experts in GNVQs.

With all these activities occurring, the level of understanding among admissions tutors of the GNVQ framework and its implications is increasing. However, the GNVQ approach to grading, with one overall grade for the total qualification, creates difficulties for over-worked admissions tutors, who have target numbers to recruit (with penalties if these are not met), and are selecting for very popular courses. To ensure fair treatment of applicants, considerable onus is placed on the GNVQ tutor in school or college to provide appropriate information (without actually suggesting a series of grades) in the reference, giving a clear picture about the applicant's strengths and weaknesses. however, few would dispute that, if the grading system suits the curriculum deliverers it would be wrong to change it without careful thought. A high-level independent working group has been set up to investigate GNVQ assessment and grading.

Other questions asked relate to the level of conceptual understanding and knowledge acquired by GNVQ applicants, and whether the assessment regime in higher education (sometimes based on essay-writing and three-hour unseen examinations) would suit the GNVQ applicant.

Undoubtedly many GNVQ applicants will gain places on HE courses and be successful. It takes time and evidence of achievement within the higher education system for some admission tutors to become confident about GNVQs as entry routes to their courses. The very positive and encouraging signs are that increasingly schools, colleges and higher education institutions are working together to achieve a seamless transition to HE for GNVQ applicants.

Judith Compton is manager of the GATE Project

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