GNVQ has provided an opportunity for students with special needs to rejoin the mainstream. When the GNVQ pilot was launched two years ago, a group of staff at Hendon college spotted an opportunity to open mainstream courses to students with learning difficulties.
As a result, people with what the college calls "additional" needs are now working towards foundation and intermediate level qualifications in the same classroom and at the same time as fast-trackers aiming to reach intermediate level in as little as 23 weeks.
Historically, students with moderate learning difficulties at this north London college were segregated on courses leading to an internal certificate. This did not do much for their self-esteem, says GNVQ co-ordinator Con Baxter.
"People with all sorts of behavioural and learning difficulties were being hot-housed together and segregated from the rest of the college. Academically, there were no clear progression routes for them."
The introduction of the Certificate of Pre-vocational Education (CPVE) saw a move towards integration. But once the BTEC first award began attracting the more able students, only those who could not get on to other courses signed up for CPVE, and much of the experience of integrating provision was lost. With the demise of CPVE, the college decided to offer GNVQs on a fully integrated basis by tailoring provision to the individual needs of all students - not just those with learning difficulties.
Behind this decision lay the belief that it is often just a throw of the dice that determines if a student arrives at college with a "special needs" label or not. As learning support co-ordinator Rosemary Davies points outs, people identified at school as having learning difficulties do not always come out with the lowest scores on the literacy and numeracy tests that all students now take when they enrol for GNVQs.
She and Con Baxter argue that any student who is not academic in the traditional sense can benefit from the kind of help usually offered to those with learning difficulties.
By taking staff away from discrete special needs teaching and redeploying them to support students on GNVQ courses, they were able to put together a modular programme that allows for different kinds of support, including team teaching, one-to-one tutorials and small group tuition for students needing help with literacy or other core skills.
The modular course structure means that one student may have a timetable made up mainly of tutorial support, core skills and information technology, with just three hours of vocational studies. Another student, not needing as much work in core skills, may be doing 15 hours of vocational studies instead.
Team teaching has helped learning support tutors pick up some vocational skills, and encouraged their colleagues from vocational areas to develop new approaches to teaching and assessment.
But staff did not find it easy to adjust to these new roles: the learning support team was initially concerned about losing its autonomy, and vocational staff worried about adapting to new teaching styles at a time when they were already under extreme pressure from the pace of organisational and curriculum change.
There was a lively debate and a furious exchange of memos before the pilot project got off the ground. According to Con Baxter, however, most lecturers now accept that all students can benefit from clearer teaching materials and the chance to demonstrate competences orally rather than in writing.
The college has so far introduced integrated courses in travel and tourism, business studies and health and social care and plans to extend the experiment to science, engineering, the built environment and information technology when these subjects are offered at GNVQ foundation and intermediate level next year.
An unusual feature of Hendon's GNVQ programme is that it delivers intermediate and foundation level qualifications at the same time, so for part of each week a student hoping to reach intermediate level in less than a year could well be sitting next to someone doing the foundation level over two years.
Rosemary Davies says: "We went for this joint delivery model because if you deliver foundation and intermediate separately, then inevitably those students not taking the intermediate at 16 would have some sort of special needs, so we would be isolating them. That would defeat the main aim which was to integrate these students for the first time into mainstream life."
Joint teaching of foundation and intermediate qualifications has meant designing each module so that it can be completed within varying periods of time and serve as a vocational taster for some and a stage on the route to a full GNVQ for others.
Although the college does not expect everyone on the programme to end up with a qualification, six out of the 30 or so students with learning difficulties who started the programme last year achieved foundation level and around double that number are expected to do the same at the end of two years. For others, successful completion of a module on a nationally recognised programme can be a real achievement.
Hendon's experiment in integrated teaching comes at a time when a committee headed by Professor John Tomlinson of Warwick University is looking at the whole area of further education for people with learning difficulties.
Appointed by the Further Education Funding Council, the committee is researching the extent and type of FE provision for this group, and until it reports, the true picture of what is happening in colleges will not be known. But Hendon college reckons that while many other colleges are just beginning to integrate their provision, its own approach is one of the most fully-developed in the country.