Editorial: Beating the bounds
The new courses were widely if sceptically welcomed, but too often for dubious reasons. There was an unholy alliance between those who said "Hands off our A-levels" and others who saw the alternative GNVQ as a weapon in their war of attrition against an litist exam.
The new qualification did succeed in breaching the walls of higher academe and, to a limited extent, has brought together the academic and the vocational; this after all was its prime purpose. But although it is gradually becoming a credible alternative to A-level, it is still widely seen as a second-class, if not lower class, option.
This is not to denigrate the qualification itself. This year's results show yet again that GNVQs are coming on in leaps and bounds. More than 90,000 young people achieved them this year, a 10 per cent increase on 1996. About 40 per cent of these are at Level 3 (the A-level equivalent), swelling the numbers of students hammering at the doors of universities and providing others with a firm footing on the ladder to employment.
But, as the detailed results from the National Council for Vocational Qualificat ions this year show, they only really succeed where there is no alternative academic A-level - in subjects such as health and social care, leisure and tourism, and engineering.
Where there is a more academic alternative, GNVQs are struggling to establish themselves. The most telling is the flagship GNVQ in business studies. While the numbers achieving Level 3 this year rose from 13,682 to 13,841, growth in the equivalent A-level was much higher, from 23,920 to 28,755 - an increase of 4,835 compared with just 159 at GNVQ.
There are some very positive developments though, the merits of which get lost in the numbers game. Although the low levels of completion still give cause for concern, there are clear indications that GNVQs are widening the range of courses students take. For example, at intermediate level (GCSE equivalent) 2,205 students following the national curriculum passed information technology.
Many cosmetic attempts have been made to raise the esteem of the GNVQ. It is generally forgotten that former Education Secretary John Patten advocated calling them "vocational A-levels". This terminology was adopted officially around the time of the 1995 Capey Report on the future of GNVQs.But amid constant scepticism and sniping, ministers quietly dropped such labels.
It took Sir Ron Dearing in last year's post-16 review to take the bull by the horns. The trouble, in his view, stemmed from the very problem highlighted this week: GNVQs will never be treated as equal to academic A-levels while they are seen as competing qualifications.
Sir Ron's solution was to label the subject, not the exam; to define a fitness for purpose. There should be "academic" study, he said, and there should be "applied". Business studies - so clearly a vocational course - should be offered as a GNVQ not as an A-level. And English literature as an academic study would never venture into the vocational camp.
But that would provoke as many new arguments as it would solve old ones. For example, science can be both academic and applied. Drawing boundaries around different forms of knowledge is never simple - especially if the main object of the exercise is to make them more testable. We seem to be the only European country with this obsession - and we suffer the worst academic-vocational divide.
In many countries, the terms "general" and "vocational" are used to denote different approaches to learning. Only the British, it would seem, are so hung up on the word "academic" - and all the class-based baggage that it carries. It is such differences that have led to a polarisation, exaggerating the merits of one qualification and downgrading the other.
The GNVQ is beginning to look like a good attempt at a solution - but it can never be the whole solution. It is, rather, one step on the pathway to an over-arching qualification which genuinely brings together different kinds of skill, knowledge and understanding.
The Government is now taking this development a step further with the introduction of a new final paper of open-ended questions, designed to test how well students can apply the knowledge and skills they have garnered while working through their GNVQ units.
Education and employment minister Kim Howells has promised that the paper will be tough enough to end any doubts about the rigour of the qualification. On this, the Government cannot afford to fail; vocational education must no longer be seen as second best.