Ask my students if they are second rate

29th March 1996 at 00:00
The first students who took advanced general national vocational qualifications are now in the second year of their degree courses. The qualification's most robust opponents decided early on that it should not survive to maturity.

There isn't a GNVQ for educationists. Employers have also been educated to believe in those who have successfully climbed the academic ladder, so they continue to ask for applicants with academic qualifications and then complain because they haven't the right skills and competences.

I do not believe that my college is so different from every other college that it can be the exception which proves the rule. So when Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment studies at Brunel University, claims that those who can, do A-level and those who can't, do GNVQ, I am prepared to answer one generalisation with another - and say that his statement is untrue.

I don't know what evidence he has for his statement because he offers none, but in my college the same qualification is required to begin an advanced GNVQ as for an A-level course. Moreover, I can produce a number of students doing GNVQ who have very high GCSE entry grades. Professor Smithers, they chose GNVQ, they didn't have to do it.

Another of his claims is that students fail to complete because they are "bored to death" with GNVQ. This cliche is also untrue of my students. Some of them do leave college early. Some find jobs, some leave because they simply find GNVQ too difficult. None did so out of boredom.

Those taking an A-level with their GNVQ tell us that they are both difficult in different ways. A-level taxes the memory, GNVQ taxes the student's ability to apply what he or she has learnt.

Alan Smithers asked why external tests do not count towards the final grading? Is he being disingenuous? He must know that they were late additions, imposed by those who could not esteem courses without examinations.

The most important part of GNVQ is the portfolio of evidence. It is this which has so impressed admissions tutors that they have offered university places to all our students who have applied for them, and has led to the offer of two places this year for art and design degree courses without the usually required foundation year.

A portfolio, with a viva on its contents as an interview, may give a fuller picture of a student's intellectual ability and grasp of the subject matter than a reference and a set of predicted grades.

Why do employers continue to ask for A-levels? So bemused are they by the propaganda against GNVQ that they are able simultaneously to say that they understand and respect A-level, and that A-levels leave young people badly prepared for the world of work. Of course they do, they were intended to prepare young people for the world of higher education.

Indeed, some employers have been known to say that graduates are not prepared for work either, being as they are pure and not applied. Why don't employers stop looking at qualifications and tell schools and colleges instead what they are looking for in their employees? Then we could tell them which courses develop their requirements, and they could advertise appropriately.

An insurance claims manager once complained to me that he was unable to recruit our "best" A-level students. As our "best" student that year was set to become a boffin, able to communicate only with high-level mathematicians and physicists, I enquired if he was what the claims department was looking for. The claims manager regularly comes to college to lecture GNVQ business students.

Recently, I was asked to speak on the same platform as eminent persons from the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades' Union Congress. I agreed to bring a GNVQ student too. Turning up looking smart and adult, he showed me a short outline speech, but said he might want to add something to this when he had heard the other speakers - and he did. They read prepared speeches.

I thought he was intelligent, articulate and brave. So did the audience, who were bowled over to learn that he was both a full-time GNVQ student, and a special constable, something GNVQ had given him the confidence to apply for. And he can be given accreditation for oral communication for doing this. A-level students aren't asked to develop this kind of communication skill, or demonstrate this kind of self-confidence.

I would like Alan Smithers to visit my college. He needn't bother to talk to me or my staff. He can discuss with the advanced GNVQ students his theory that they are on a second-rate course because they can achieve nothing better. They'd be delighted to take him on.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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