Five into one will go, for vocational qualifications

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
A technical college fears that its work will be 'discredited'

It is the country's first university technical college, an innovative school praised by Michael Gove as an "amazing" pioneer.

But now the JCB Academy fears that its work will be "discredited", and admissions threatened, because the education secretary has slashed the league table value of its core qualification from five GCSEs to just one.

Paul Pritchard, chair of governors at the 14-19 school, said he was "disappointed" by Mr Gove's downgrading of the Principal Learning (part of the diploma) engineering qualification that all his pupils take.

"We felt that the rigour and the robustness of the engineering diploma that had been developed by industry in cooperation with education was extremely good," he told TES.

"It is a pity that that has been put down to one GCSE, which will discourage a lot of people. The trouble is it has been discredited in the eyes of parents and children."

Mr Pritchard said that the academy in Rocester, Staffordshire, was currently oversubscribed but now had to work to ensure that its popularity was not damaged by Mr Gove's decision.

It was announced this week as part of what the media reported as a "bonfire" of vocational qualifications.

The number of such courses that count in league tables is to be reduced from 3,175 to 125 from 2014, with just 70 included in the main GCSE measure.

But the vast majority of qualifications being cut, including those highlighted in the media covering horse care and fish husbandry, are not offered by most schools.

A TES analysis suggests that the new regime may allow much of the recent explosion in the number of vocational courses taken in schools - a 24,458 per cent increase between 2003 and 2010 - to remain in place.

At least 340,000 of the 462,182 results in GCSE-level vocational qualifications in schools in 2009-10 were in courses likely to survive in some form under revised rules.

But by 2014 the qualifications will have to include a "substantial" proportion of external assessment and offer "proven progression into a broad range of further qualifications or careers" to be included in the tables.

More significantly, each qualification will be seen as equivalent to only a single GCSE, however long they take to teach. Previously some had been worth up to six GCSEs.

It is this rule that is most likely to discourage schools from using the qualifications to "game" the system.

But it is also the change that has "surprised and stunned" a high-powered coalition of business leaders. The group, including representatives of Boeing, Sony, Siemens, JCB, Toshiba and Airbus, have accused ministers of "undermining" the engineering diploma, a qualification they say is "highly robust and attractive".

A Department for Education spokesman countered: "Some larger qualifications do take longer to teach than a GCSE but we believe all qualifications should count as 'one'. Employers recognise the quality of qualifications - not some abstract equivalency measure."

Playing the system

The leader of an academies chain, who until December was one of the country's most senior education officials, has said there is "nothing wrong" with schools employing "tactical means" to drive up their league table scores.

Jon Coles, former director general for education standards at the Department for Education, told a Cambridge Assessment conference this week that contro-versial strategies such as early GCSE entry and focusing on borderline CD grade pupils were valuable if they improved attainment. "It depends what exactly you do," the new chief executive of the United Learning Trust said to TES afterwards.

He had seen some schools enter pupils early for English and maths then expect them to abandon the subjects when they achieved Cs, which was not "defensible". But early entry as a base for more advanced study was acceptable.

On emphasising borderline pupils, Mr Coles said: "The difference between a D and a C is worth more than between any other two grades, because for universities, sixth forms and jobs there is a difference.

"But you have to ask yourself as a school, are you really focusing on the progress of every one of your children."

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