Backlash as vocational courses are devalued

6th March 2015 at 00:00
OCR exam board warns of `profound' effect on students and colleges

One of the country's leading exam boards has attacked the government's decision to drop a number of prominent vocational qualifications from performance tables.

The OCR board said the Department for Education's list of approved technical and vocational qualifications for key stage 4 had "important omissions" that would have a "profound" effect on students and colleges across the country.

The list, published last week, contains qualifications that have been approved for teaching from September, and which will be reported in the new technical award category of the 2017 performance tables. Three of OCR's qualifications have been removed: Cambridge Nationals in ICT, science and science in the workplace, all at levels 1 and 2. Collectively they are taken by more than 55,000 students a year.

Charlotte Bosworth, director of skills and employment at OCR, told TES: "These are important omissions that profoundly affect student achievements and colleges' choices, as well as sending out the wrong message to employers at a time when great efforts are under way by all key stakeholders to reinforce and promote the validity and value of vocational learning."

Ms Bosworth said awarding organisations had worked hard to meet the requirements set out in the influential Wolf report of 2011 to improve the quality of vocational qualifications delivered in schools and colleges.

"This required both time and investment, not just from awarding organisations but also employers and deliverers," she added. "These qualifications were then approved by a regulator as being high-quality, valid, meeting employer's needs, enabling progression and leading to good education outcomes, but this is not deemed as good enough to be accepted on to the DfE performance points list."

OCR has been contacted by a number of ICT teachers who are particularly angry that the ICT certificate at level 2, equivalent to a GCSE, has been dropped.

One teacher, who did not want to be named, said: "Are there any ICT teachers who don't think it is a sound qualification, giving students the opportunity to study a broad and balanced computing curriculum for their KS4 course? We need to be trusted as professionals to choose what is right to stretch our pupils."

The decision also sent the wrong message to employers, Ms Bosworth added. "After all the hard work many people have put in to make employers understand and value vocational learning, this decision could reverse the positive steps made."

Other awarding organisations, however, chose not to publicly criticise the DfE. A spokeswoman for City amp; Guilds said: "[Our qualifications included on the list] are brand new qualifications and we are working closely with the DfE at the moment to ensure that there is a credible and suitable range of vocational qualifications at KS4 from 2016."

Qualifications that no longer count towards performance measures can still be offered by schools and colleges. OCR insists that it will continue to offer the axed courses, as it "fundamentally believes" this is in students' best interests.

David Corke, director of education and skills policy for the Association of Colleges, said: "If a young person decides to undertake a technical award at 14, they should be assured that the programme is broad, high-quality and will provide them with applied knowledge and skills not usually picked up through a general education pathway."

A DfE spokeswoman said that, before 2010, too many vocational qualifications left young people unprepared for work, which was why the government had made "radical" reforms. "Technical awards are distinct from GCSEs and can complement the academic offer," she added.

"Alternative qualifications in subjects that are already covered by our new reformed GCSEs undermine their rigour and the hard work of students and teachers. These qualifications ultimately short-change young people and we will not encourage schools to offer these qualifications by recognising them in performance tables."

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