Inspectors who recently urged co-operation between schools and colleges would approve of a new GNVQ project. Anat Arkin reports. Fourteen-year-olds in Leeds are being tempted to stay on at school by an innovative project that gives them a taste of General National Vocational Qualifications two years before such courses are due to be available to their age group.
The South Leeds 14 to 18 Collaborative Project, a group of schools and colleges, has developed foundation-level GNVQ units. These will not lead to a qualification, but the idea is that students who have covered part of a post-16 programme before completing their compulsory studies will then have a strong incentive to take the full foundation award or move up to the next rung on the vocational ladder - just as envisaged in Sir Ron Dearing's review of the national curriculum.
Funded by Leeds Training and Enterprise Council, the two-year project brings together teachers from three FE colleges and five schools to develop learning materials. Those already produced cover five sectors: leisure and tourism, health and social care, art and design, the built environment and business.
The Leeds project bears out conclusions in the recent inspectors' report from the Office for Standards in Education and the Further Education Funding Council that students are best served by collaboration and not competition between schools and colleges (TES, October 21). It also challenges the belief of ministers and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, that GNVQs need to include tougher exams to match the rigour of GCSEs for 14 to 16-year-olds.
Furthermore, it shows that merging the vocational and academic pathways, as demanded recently by a united forum of state and private-sector school and college heads is desirable for the whole 14 to 19 curriculum.
Project co-ordinator Ann Aughton believes the student-centred teaching style used on vocational courses will also persuade more teenagers to stay on, arguing that some of the information-gathering and team-working skills that students used to develop have been lost with the advent of the national curriculum.
She says: "Because the national curriculum tends to be factually directed, staff have had to change their teaching styles to cover the syllabus and youngsters have been losing their motivation. We want to restore that."
As well as seeking to ease students' transition to post-16 education the project wants to raise the status of vocational studies.
Pauline Stead, director of studies at Joseph Priestly college, who had the original idea for the project, says: "I was looking at the issue of progression at 16 and the notion that GCSE was the valued route and that vocational courses were the option for low achievers. I wanted vocational programmes to have the same esteem or to be moving towards having the same esteem as the GCSE. "
Like Ann Aughton, she is convinced that vocational education will only overcome its image problem if youngsters can combine vocational and academic studies at the 14-16 stage.
The Leeds project is unusual in bringing together staff from schools and FE colleges at a time when competition for students is undermining links between the two sectors in many parts of the country. But, according to Mrs Aughton, schools and colleges have a common interest in winning over teenagers in inner south Leeds, where staying on rates are below the national average.
"If you increase the size of the pond, you increase the number of fishes and that will benefit colleges as well as schools," she says, adding that the project is helping to restore the strong links that schools had with FE colleges before the latter became independent of local authority control.
As well as producing learning materials - for use in both schools and colleges - the project teams working on each vocational area look for elements common to GNVQs and the national curriculum. So when students have completed their key stage 4 studies in technology, for example, they might also have covered part of a GNVQ unit in catering or manufacturing.
Involving FE staff in identifying these overlaps is intended to make it that much easier for colleges to accredit students' prior learning and avoid unnecessary duplication.
The school-college collaboration also reduces the risk of a two-tier GNVQ structure evolving, with colleges running the practical, but expensive, courses , while schools offer relatively cheap and more theoretical courses.
The five project schools recently started piloting some of the new materials, which will eventually be disseminated to all secondary schools in Leeds through the city's Technical and Vocational Education Initiative network. Some schools offer the vocational units alongside existing courses, while others plan to give students the option of dropping some GCSEs and taking vocational courses instead.
At Morley Bruntcliffe High, Ann Aughton's own school, the introduction of new units in leisure and tourism has not been expensive. The school has experience of running Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) courses and City and Guilds courses and is now offering a post-16 intermediate-level GNVQ course in business.
Staff at schools with less experience of vocational education are likely to have a steeper learning curve than those at Morley Bruntcliffe High. But Mrs Aughton says the project materials are intended to take some pressure off teachers running their first vocational courses. "We don't want them all to find that they have to start writing materials as they did for the national curriculum," she says.
The project could be a catalyst for future collaboration between schools and colleges. As Pauline Stead of Joseph Priestley College says: "People at the grassroots have started working together and got to know and trust each other and I hope they will continue to do that."