When one of his pupils found himself struggling with A-level computing, Paul Varey suggested he switch to a more hands-on, vocational course. Not only did the teenager pass, he went on to become a fully-qualified network engineer, passing a further set of exams with ease.
Varey is ICT manager at Deanery C of E High School, Wigan, one of a growing number of schools which have widened their range of ICT courses, offering vocational options alongside GCSEs and A-levels. Some of the new courses are helping staff as well as pupils develop their skills.
About a third of young people now leave school with an ICT qualification, more than ever before, and an increasing variety of courses are becoming eligible for funding. Last year, qualifications from IT companies such as Microsoft made their debut in the National Qualifications Framework.
Vocational qualifications fall broadly into two types: those which concentrate on using ICT - word processing or spreadsheet skills, for example - and those focused on more technical skills such as developing software or supporting computer users.
In the first category, popular choices both for teachers and pupils are Computer Literacy and Information Technology (CLAIT) and the European Computer Driving licence (ECDL). CLAIT is a qualification from OCR. The first level, New CLAIT, offers a choice of four from 13 units ranging from word processing to computer art, each of which carries an individual certificate. Learners can progress to CLAIT Plus and CLAIT Advanced.
Lavinia Robinson, head of study for technology at West Kent College, a post-16 college in Tonbridge, says: "We teach CLAIT in all our full-time courses. For students doing ICT as a value-added extra, CLAIT is excellent, as you can do it in bite-sized chunks and get to grips with a unit quickly."
ECDL is recognised in 120 countries, and the UK awarding body is the British Computer Society. Learners have three years in which to complete seven modules which cover the most popular skills for industry and commerce.
Pete Bayley, director of ECDL UK, says: "Almost 300 schools are now accredited ECDL test centres. Often teachers do ECDL, then it is offered to pupils, usually at key stage 4, sometimes in the sixth-form. One or two schools offer it as an alternative to GCSE, for pupils who don't want all the theory behind GCSE, and others offer it as an extra. A few are starting earlier; we have even had enquiries from a couple of junior schools."
A school considering alternatives to general qualifications such as GCSEs will want to ensure that the requirements of the national curriculum are still met and that KS4 pupils have opportunities to apply ICT purposefully, using it in tasks such as research, problem-solving, and analysing and presenting information. That might be done as part of an ICT course, or by using ICT in other subjects.
For teachers, Aston Swann offers the ECDL for Educators programme, which helps them acquire their ECDL skills in a school context, using word processing, for example, to construct a lesson plan.
Wendy Swann, director of the programme, says: "Teachers are now taking their learning materials into the classroom, and pupils are gaining a lot of benefit, particularly at KS3 and 4. We have had many requests for a programme specifically for pupils, and we are looking at how to make this available." She stresses that the aim would not be to cover the curriculum, but to help pupils acquire ECDL skills in the context of their studies.
For students considering careers in information technology, OCR's new iPRO qualifications cover systems support and software development and include qualifications created by Microsoft, internet technology company Cisco and CompTIA, the international industry association.
Paul Varey runs Cisco courses through iPRO for sixth-formers at Deanery High School: "Some students are attuned to achieving more on the vocational route than they possibly could on a more academic A-level route. But that doesn't apply to everyone, and we offer both options." Deanery is a technology college and a Cisco Networking Academy - a centre of excellence for teaching internet technology skills - and ICT is compulsory at KS4.
Varey says: "Most students do the AQA GCSE short course ICT - half a GCSE.
Lower-ability students do CLAIT Plus, including Microsoft's own specialist modules covering the use of Office software, so they receive a certificate from Microsoft as well as OCR. You can go anywhere in the world with a Microsoft certificate, and an employer will recognise it."
Next year he plans to offer an iPRO software development course to Year 9 pupils interested in computer programming.
Varey explored applied GCSEs when they first appeared, and "wasn't bowled over", although he is now re-examining all the possibilities for offering pupils more choice. His advice is: "Do your research and find out exactly what the school would be committing to, in terms of fees and the training or hiring of staff. CompTIA can offer advice on introducing industry qualifications."
The downside to offering vocational courses is that they carry no weight in performance tables. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is currently reviewing the weighting system and a wider range of qualifications is soon to be accepted. The QCA is also developing new hybrid qualifications, such as ICT and music, and business and communications, which reflect the increasing role ICT plays in everyday life.
Approved courses (under 19): www.dfes.gov.uksection96
Approved courses (post-19): www.dfes.co.uksection97
QCA: www.qca.org.uk qualifications
ECDL for Educators: www.educatorsecdl.com
City and Guilds wants to offer its e-Quals IT courses to schools: www.e-quals.co.uk
Electric Paper offers online testing for Clait and ECDL:www.electricpaper.ie