The doctor who hopes to kill A-levels

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Ian Nash meets the man largely responsible for the new shape of vocational education.

Gilbert Jessup is variously described by staff and former colleagues as "a visionary", "training guru" and "the man who will test anything that moves".

In his unrelenting pursuit of a new style of assessment in the workplace, schools and colleges, Dr Jessup became the most formative influence in reshaping the vocational education world.

Speaking to The TES on his retirement as deputy chief executive of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications last week, Dr Jessup was confident that what he has helped set in train will see "the end of A-levels by the year 2000".

His achievements are all the more remarkable for a man who only entered education 13 years ago. Recruited to the Manpower Services Commission by Sir Geoffrey Holland, he brought the tools of his previous trade - occupational psychologist in the Ministry of Defence - to bear on the Youth Training Scheme and workplace assessment.

The training revolution launched in 1981 needed a more speedy response to retraining the workforce than traditional education allowed. A plethora of initiatives followed. Dr Jessup helped shape them all as he progressed from the MSC to the NCVQ, first as director of research. The NCVQ itself was seen as just another initiative.

"Most people in the training world and the awarding bodies imagined that we would just disappear. It could have happened. Up to 1990 it was touch and go whether it would be modified and weakened."

Then came a fortuitous review, demanded by ministers, of the whole vocational education and training framework. In large part, it was a political distraction in the face of an overwhelming call from industry, commerce and education for radical reform of A-levels.

The politically expedient way out was seen as to reshape vocational courses as a credible alternative to A-level. The question was whether to bring all existing qualifications together or create a wholly new framework. "I was absolutely on the side of a new qualification," said Dr Jessup.

He won, and the result was a relaunch of NVQs and the birth of the general NVQ to help unify the school and college-based vocational qualifications jungle.

"Existing qualifications, including BTEC, City and Guilds and RSA awards, were not highly regarded by employers, and vocational education was not seen as relevant to the workplace," he said.

Meanwhile, politicians and seers such as Professor Charles Handy of the London Business School were talking of the need for constant retraining and the end of jobs for life. Neither the world of education nor training were, in his view, geared up for it. Indeed, education, with its two-year A-level and three-year degree courses, seemed ill-fitted for the central and biggest task of adult retraining.

All this should have happened a decade ago. Dr Jessup looks on the 1980s as a decade of both significant gains and missed opportunities. School and college-industry links were improving but government employment and education department initiatives were "with hindsight" surprisingly lacking the essential links.

"The YTS and the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative were conceived at the same time but never linked. That would not happen today with the talk of a relevant 14-19 curriculum framework."

Just as the Government stood apart, so the whole debate remained polarised; vocational education being about what trainees can do, and the academic being about what students know and can understand. "But people in the real world don't make such a distinction," Dr Jessup said. Indeed, the same view was parroted in political rhetoric, with ministers saying they wanted to know what pupils knew, understood and could do.

It was Dr Jessup who brought skills-based or "competence" testing into schools and colleges as an alternative to traditional assessment methods. John Hillier, his boss at the NCVQ for the past five years, is forthright about his deputy's achievements. "He had not only the vision but the tenacity needed to make it a practical reality. What he has created in the GNVQ is popular with teachers and students - that is what matters."

The figures testify to this. The GNVQ, launched as a new third route to excellence, between NVQ and A-level, took everyone by surprise. From a pilot of 8,000 students, recruits mushroomed to 162,000 in two years. This year it is confidently predicted to attract 250,000 post-16 students.

And now there are pilots of post-14 studies - GNVQ is seen as the way to unify and expand vocational education within the national curriculum.

Dr Jessup does not deny that there are problems ahead. Has the qualifications jungle been replaced by a jungle of jargon? Can enough schools be tempted down the vocational route 14-plus to prevent it becoming a means of separating "the sheep from the goats"?

He remains an optimist. If the 1980s were about bringing together employers and education, then the early 1990s have been about creating a 14 to 19 academic and vocational curriculum for all.

It is a testimony to what John Hillier calls his "genius" that the NCVQ has been unable to find a replacement for him. But Dr Jessup has no intention of staying on. "I have neglected my tennis too much lately," he said.

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