Secondary. Michael Duffy visits a school which has fitted vocational qualifications into a broad range of choices for its students. Ercall Wood School is in Wellington at the western edge of Telford, close to the Wrekin, the Shropshire landmark whose distinctive silhouette serves as logo for the school.
Originally a boys' grammar school, it was reorganised as an 11 to 16 mixed comprehensive in 1979. Surplus places in Telford - a familiar story still - triggered a closure proposal. That was fended off by vigorous parental pressure but the associated under-funding wasn't. Grant maintained status, achieved in 1993, was seen as "the obvious solution", says headteacher Peter Rubery. It brought, he says, not only a much-need capital injection but a new sense of purpose and valuable industrial support - both of them recognised in last year's award of technology college status. The plaque at the entrance, listing the school's co-partners, confirms his view. It's an impressive list of national and local firms.
There are 760 pupils - five year groups of 150 each or thereabouts. Eighteen per cent of them qualify for free school meals. There is also a 60 pupil SEN (dyslexia) unit, separately funded by the LEA, whose experience contributed greatly to the review of curriculum and teaching methods that the school has undertaken. So did the school's policy, inherited from Shropshire, of testing all its pupils when they arrive and keeping track of value added by the school.
But the most significant factor, Mr Rubery says ("the bedrock on which the rest was built") was the six-month consultation with parents, staff and pupils that produced a schoolwide discipline policy based on the rewarding of achievement. Linked to a new tutor-group-based pastoral system, the discipline policy had the effect of focusing attention on obstacles to achievement - particularly in the curriculum and its teaching.
There was a general perception, deputy Gill Eatough says, that at key stage 4 pupils were overloaded with GCSEs (they took 10 each) and were given little realistic choice in the traditional block option system. "Squeezing children into option boxes was bad for them - and bad for us, as teachers," she says.
The first step was to look for vocational alternatives across the ability range - but the City and Guilds Vocational Diploma ("unwieldy and unmotivating") didn't fit the bill. A group of staff went to a conference on General National Vocational Qualifications and liked what they saw. Against the advice of the lea but with strong support from staff and governors, they took the plunge. A sum of Pounds 15,000 was committed from the budget to refurbish a three-room teaching area. A core team (three lead teachers and three core skills co-ordinators) was identified and trained with the help of the local FE college. Units of GNVQ options were introduced at foundation and intermediate level into the 1994 year 10 curriculum in business, travel and tourism and health and social care.
The response from parents, staff and students was positive. The immediate result was that the school secured inclusion in the 1995 pilots of the new GNVQ part I, which is equivalent to two GCSEs in weight or half a GNVQ - in this case, for business and health and social care. That brought a Pounds 15, 000 grant from the Department for Education and Employment (a nicely symmetrical acknowledgement, Mr Rubery thinks, of the risk they took) and encouragement and expertise from the inspectors appointed to monitor the courses.
On both sides, initial verdicts were strongly favourable. John Jones, for instance, GNVQ co-ordinator, finds part one a huge improvement on its predecessor, the full GNVQ: "better structured, less cumbersome, clearer and more straightforward in assessment". He is applying to do part I leisure and tourism next year and is exploring the possibility of part I manufacturing from 1997.
The logistics are straightforward. Overall, year 10 pupils take maths and English (six periods each in a 50 period week) double science (nine periods) and a five period modern foreign language option (French, German or Urdu, or vocational German with study skills). They all take a four period design technology option and have two periods each for PE and ITInformation Systems.
They also have two periods a fortnight for each of RE and PSE - on the face of it a minimal allocation in this school. However, RE and PSE are taught to form groups by form tutors, as part of the pastoral framework. Booming options for RE at examination level (this year more than 50 takers) are testimony that it works.
That leaves 16 periods: a free choice of three more GCSEs from art and music, the humanities, PE, home economics, theatre arts and information systems, or one GCSE from art and music, the humanities, PE, home economics, theatre arts and information systems, or one GCSE and a GNVQ. Thirty-five year 10 pupils take this latter option.
Judging by pupil response that number is set to grow. Lisa Field, taking health and social care, pointed out that it rated as two GCSEs, "without the stress of end of course examinations". She gave a clear explanation of the element and unit structure of the syllabus. She enjoyed the emphasis on group work and the work-based visits. She had just returned from a drug rehabilitation centre - "a really interesting lesson". Peter Beetlestone (business) agreed. "I like working on assignments and using the computers. I feel more like a student. Can I show you my portfolio?" It is clear that Ercall Wood has something going for it. With a pupil teacher ratio of 16.5:1, staffing is on the generous side. IT provision, with significant support from local firms, is generous too. Telford's new industries and facilities make it a good location for work visits and the area provides excellent opportunities for GNVQ progression post-16.
The school is helped, too, by its national pilot status. But there is also a tangible sense of purpose in the school: a clear lead from a confident senior team, and a marked willingness among the staff to carry their shared concern for improved performance into their teaching - even it means re-learning.
Jim Toal, an art teacher newly recruited to the travel and tourism team, is a case in point. There was no time for formal training; he'd been learning GNVQ-speak, like the pupils, as he went along. "It's not been a problem, " he says. "To be honest, I'm enjoying it. It's a different technique of teaching. It makes a refreshing change."
No-one, as yet, knows how the GNVQ results will be league-tabled. As a GM school, Ercall Wood has more reason than most to be seen to be succeeding. Mr Rubery, though, is relaxed about it. The curriculum as a whole, he says, is lifting motivation and performance - and that's what counts. League tables, in that context, are a secondary concern.