What makes one course "vocational" and another "academic"? This question lies at the heart of the A-levelGNVQ debate, and the answer may well determine the place of business education in the curriculum of the future.
A-level business studies, an increasingly popular subject, is under threat from those who believe it is too similar to the Advanced GNVQ in business. Now that part one GNVQ business is in schools at key stage 4, how long will it be before similar noises are heard at that level as well? Such uncertainty means that teachers feel insecure, examination boards resist syllabus changes and publishers hold back on printing new textbooks and other resources.
Those involved in business education have tended to dismiss those who call for a combined A-level GNVQ as ignorant of their differences. However, things have changed and the argument is no longer so clear cut. GNVQ business is moving increasingly in the direction of A-level business studies, while the latter appears more or less static. If this trend continues the justification for retaining both will disappear.
When GNVQs were introduced in the early l990s they were based on the notion of vocational competence. In other words, once candidates demonstrated that they could do something without serious error, they passed. There was no call for any knowledge of underlying principles and values. GNVQ business, therefore, required students to meet certain "performance criteria" through assignments that only tested the process. There were paper and pencil tests as well, but these were multiple choice and designed simply to "confirm knowledge".
The content itself was also revealing. The early GNVQ specification was markedly different from the A-level because it tended to take an uncritical stance towards business.
GNVQs have changed, however. The quality of student work is now tested through assignments, which themselves have centrally set components, while the pencil and paper tests are growing in complexity and importance. There have also been significant changes in the content. The unit Business at Work now requires students "to be able to recognise the social, environmental and ethical influences which contribute to a business's culture". The phrase could have been lifted directly from an A-level business studies syllabus.
And what of the A-level? Its assessment still leans heavily on high-stakes exams. Increasing modularity has helped ease the pressure in this regard, but modularity makes the fit with GNVQ units even tighter. What is more troubling is its subject content. A-levels are bound by "subject cores", and the inclusion of mechanistic, statistically based techniques has given the A-level a more vocational bias.
Both GNVQ business and A-level business studies should and could co-exist. They offer staff and students alternative teaching, learning and assessment strategies. They should also provide alternative ways of looking at the business world, with GNVQ continuing its vocational thrust but with a wider, more reflective perspective.
The A-level is in need of fundamental review. It would be good to see greater attention paid to alternative business scenarios for the next century. Both GNVQ and A-level would remain firmly rooted in reality, but they would also be reflective; there would simply be a difference of emphasis. Then the question of which was "academic" and which "vocational" would become an irrelevance.
David Lines is lecturer in business and economics education at the University of London's Institute of Education and a former A-level chief examiner