In a bid to attract more pupils, a boarding school is offering GNVQs and work experience for sixth formers alongside traditional A-levels, writes Maureen O'Connor
Founded by a Victorian philanthropist as a school for needy children, Kingham Hill has all the public school trappings of chapel, playing fields and substantial boarding houses, but little of the academic or social cachet. Even now only about half its 200 pupils pay full fees and the intake is, according to the head, Michael Payne, as comprehensive as it can be given the lack of high flyers and special needs children.
With the popularity of boarding fading, the school is not alone in seeking to carve itself a new niche in an overcrowded market. Three years ago it decided to admit girls for the first time. This year, after careful research, it has launched an alternative programme for its sixth-form based on GNVQs as well as A-Levels. In private education at least, GNVQs are still a new and lonely route.
This is why a carefully time-tabled series of car and coach trips has been delivering Kingham Hill pupils to factories all over the Midlands to look at manufacturing industry in action: everything from traditional blanket factories in Witney to high-tech computer firms in Oxford and a double-glazing firm in Nottingham.
The school's sixth formers are to be found working one day a week in commercial offices in the nearby town of Chipping Norton, visiting the customer care department at British Airways and making industrial forays to Oxford, Banbury, Coventry and the Potteries.
This is also why, according to Michael Payne, the sixth form has doubled in size this year. But he is careful to emphasise that the GNVQ project is not just a marketing exercise. There are solid educational reasons for the change, he says, and it was not one the school rushed into.
"We spent a whole year looking at what was on offer. And when we had made our decision we held a meeting for parents with outside speakers to explain exactly what the courses were and where they could lead." In the event the school decided to offer three advanced and intermediate vocational courses. The former run alongside A-levels, the latter are taken by one-year sixth formers who had previously only stayed for re-takes. An advanced GNVQ course, equivalent to two A-levels, can be taken with one traditional A-level subject if students can cope.
"We never felt that the BTEC courses were suitable for schools, but when GNVQs were launched they seemed to provide an admirable solution for those who wanted a respectable post-16 course and a vocational bias. We did our research and waited until we felt the teething problems were over before going with the RSA courses (leading to GNVQ qualifications) in manufacturing, leisure and tourism and business. Even that decision was made after consulting our fourth and fifth year pupils to see where their interests lay."
Manufacturing, taught in the heart of the countryside, was a more logical choice than it might appear, Mr Payne says. The school already had a strong technology department, with equipment and staffing to match. There had to be some investment, particularly in information technology, but not as much as for a school starting from a lower base. Two new staff appointments, one with experience of teaching business at HND level, have been more than justified by the increased staying on rate. The industrial experience element is catered for not through work experience but through a series of visits.
The three subjects which the school has launched give young people enough flexibility, he thinks, to move in tangential directions. One of the boys doing manufacturing has already discovered an interest in computer assisted design and has taken himself off on a training course out of school. He is designing and intends to manufacture a sought-after part for classic Austin Seven cars. Students with an interest in the hotel and catering industry can pursue careers through the business or leisure and tourism GNVQs.
A-levels continue alongside the GNVQs and can be combined with them. But from next year, science A-levels will probably be subsumed within a science GNVQ course. "It is wrong to suppose that this is a step away from academic rigour," Mr Payne says. He is satisfied with courses which have tests at the end of each module and a demanding pass rate. Final assessment is made on submitted work which is internally and externally moderated. The core skills of communication, number and IT are integral to the courses and have to be demonstrated in assessed projects.
Robert Herringshaw, the school's GNVQ co-ordinator and tutor to the manufacturing class, rejects complaints that students will go on from GNVQs "unable to write essays". He brings out complex reports, impeccably produced during the first term of the course, as evidence that these students will be literate enough to handle anything higher education to which most aspire can throw at them.
What they will also be able to do, says Scott Birnie, who teaches leisure and tourism in a room which could double as a travel agency, is make presentations and videos and compile portfolios of their work for prospective college tutors or employers when they move on. "Employers we meet, from Granada to Thorpe Park, accept that these are the courses of the future and our students are enthusiastic about that."
Mr Herringshaw is also delighted by the enthusiasm of industry to help his group: "They are surprised and pleased to find bright young people wanting to know about manufacturing industry."