A parity that has proved elusive
Pundits have been plagued for decades on the question of how to achieve "parity of esteem" between academic and vocational courses. At Pimlico School in London, both sixth-formers and staff are very conscious of the problem.
"The GNVQ course doesn't get the recognition it should," said Emma, a student on an intermediate science course. "It's a lot harder than A-level." A boy in her class agreed: "It's like they're punishing us for not getting good marks in the GCSE."
And that is where part of the problem lies. For it will never be easy to convince students who have done well in their GCSEs to choose from a broader range of courses until all choices have equal status.
Kathleen Wood, headteacher, has no doubt that a unified system of qualifications, with a single ladder of measurement for "academic" and "vocational" courses, is the way forward for sixth-form education. She is concerned that "too many students are put off by the lack of credence given to the vocational courses" and says competition for a good position in the league tables dominated decisions about the courses to be run. "When did you last see a newspaper article talking about the real merits of schools in relation to their vocational achievements?" she asked.
Even the advanced level GNVQ is described as being like a vocational A-level, she added. "You're always setting the standards by A-level, aren't you? You really do need to get away from that."
Pimlico serves a very wide range of young people, more so than most other London comprehensives. With its central location near the Tate Gallery, the 1,350-pupil school takes in children from elegant homes on leafy streets, but also has 45 per cent of youngsters on free meals, and substantial numbers of homeless and refugee children. With more than 90 per cent staying on in post-16 education, it offers a wide range of A-level and GNVQ courses to its 170 sixth-formers.
To meet all their needs, Miss Wood believes in a general certificate, with solid core skills included. "For the academic student, A-levels are not the answer. There must be more breadth." She believes the common core should include maths, literacy, science, information technology, and a language, as well as skills like problem-solving, and elements like citizenship and personal and social education.
The GNVQ students back her up. "I am doing this course because it gives me a wider perspective," said Sam. Emma, too, found the core skills included in the science course valuable. "If you change your career, you've still got a qualification in computers." And learning speaking and presentation skills "gives you more confidence".
But A-level students did not want change. "I feel that because I am concentrating on those three subjects I am not spreading myself thin," said Nicola. She and her companions were not concerned about specialising at 16. "At 16 you should be able to narrow things down. At GCSE you have to do everything and it is only now you realise what you excel in," said Russell.