Ten youngsters were about to leave Westwood high school this summer when they were enticed back by a sports course that includes training in professional football coaching from Stoke City Football Club.
The course was part of the new level 3 (A-level) OCR National in sport, which promises an all-round sports education that will open doors to further and higher education.
Westwood, in the Staffordshire town of Leek, decided to offer the OCR National because there was no other suitable course. The deputy head, Keith Hollins, said the school was interested in other OCR Nationals but could not enrol sufficient students this year. The main attraction is that testing is not as rigorous as for vocational A-levels. The more formal AVCE in leisure and recreation had failed to interest them. "There is more emphasis on coursework (in the OCR National), which is appropriate for students who opt for this type of course," he says.
The students spend 10 hours a week on the qualification in conjunction with other studies. They are required to help out in PE lessons with younger pupils at their school. Some A-level PE students at the school have suggested the OCR National might have been a more appropriate qualification for them. Some OCR National students are already talking about studying sports science at university.
The new courses, on offer from this term, are aimed at learners with a vocational bent but no specific job in mind. OCR stresses that its nationals are not work-based qualifications and do not demand a display of competence in the workplace. They are mostly for 16 to 19-year-olds, or adults returning to further education full-time - usually in combination with other programmes.
They are designed to break down one of the most stubborn statistics in the world of education: the number of 16 to 18-year-olds who have vanished from education, training and work. In 2001, 174,000 (9 per cent) were not in education or training, or in a job - exactly the same number as in 1997, when Labour came to power.
All indications are that there will be no significant shift this year. The percentage in full-time learning remains at about 75 per cent. Which makes a tall order of the Government's ambition to ensure that by 2010, 90 per cent of all people have undertaken a full-time programme of education and training that sets them up for higher education or work with prospects by the time they are 22 years-old.
As recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggest, Britain is good at supplying the world with high-flying graduates but less successful in getting less academic-minded 16-year-olds to stay on. The challenge for schools, colleges and examiners is to create an advanced qualification that motivates the disaffected while appealing to higher fliers.
Since the loss three years ago of advanced GNVQs, work-minded students have struggled to find a qualification that meets their needs. The vocational A-level, which replaced the advanced GNVQ as part of the Curriculum 2000 changes, includes more rigorous testing and compulsory key skills that can put off less-motivated learners. Some schools and colleges have turned to BTEC Nationals, first introduced in the mid-1980s. Others are embracing the new options on offer from OCR: Nationals and applied GCSEs.
National awards available this year cover four work sectors: business, health, social care and early years. Choices range from levels 1 to 3 (foundation, which is about GCSE level, to A-level). Awards in another eight sectors will be available next year.
The new qualifications were launched in response to a strong demand for more full-time qualifications, says Sharon Woodfield, manager for OCR Nationals and work-related learning. "There is a gap, particularly at level 1, in qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds and adults. There are lots of part-time qualifications that relate to IT or book-keeping, but colleges want a full-time course they can pull together for a group."
The qualifications are designed as a suite, allowing for progression within school or FE and on to higher education or employment. They are tested by continuous assessment with external testing in just two of the units.
Although they will appeal to youngsters who might have taken advanced GNVQs, Ms Woodfield says the potential market is much larger, including adults seeking retraining. Work experience is recommended but not essential. "OCR accepts the difficulty some learners and institutions have in gaining access to the workplace," she says.
With the main launch due next September, OCR expects only a small number of centres to offer the qualifications this year. Signs are encouraging though; by the start of the autumn term, the board had 150 schools and colleges expressing an interest.
Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, reckons the new qualifications have the potential to unlock those stubborn statistics of youth drop-out and under-performance. "Any new vocational qualification that brings with it a level of creativity should be welcomed as an attempt to increase participation in post-16 learning," she says.
One place where this creative approach is already having an effect is Newcastle College. Its new level 3 OCR National in business actually gained extra students in the first week. Normally, some students drop courses in the first few days. Lesley Renwick, section manager for business and management studies, says staff were "knocked out" by the response. She says learners prefer it to the vocational A-level in business because it encourages independent thinking as well as the development of business skills. Teachers prefer the more flexible assessment that allows them to choose when to submit coursework for the two externally assessed units.
"It's a much more appropriate qualification," says Ms Renwick. "It's not just ticking boxes. Students get to do research using documents in a business format. There is lots of group work and the activities are more exciting. It's a more holistic approach."
Where OCR Nationals cover general vocational sectors, BTEC Nationals are likely to remain popular with young people who have more idea about their future. "If people have a career in mind, the BTEC National gives them the opportunity to develop ready job skills," says Rick Firth, BTEC director at Edexcel, OCR's rival exam board. But he recognises that there is space for other awards. "There is a growing demand for vocational qualifications, particularly at levels 1 and 2. If other awarding bodies feel they can capture part of that market, then time will tell whether there is room for them."