Hard road to parity

4th November 1994 at 00:00
The difficulties which now beset the new vocational qualifications are not fatal; indeed, they may prove constructive in effect if the right lessons are taken to heart by the main protagonists. Chief among these is the Government. Though Ministers are now sharply aware of the doubts and conflicts that have arisen over the quality and assessment of the general national vocational qualification, there has been scant recognition of the lack of proper planning, preparation, and even understanding.

For too long Ministers, while rightly talking up the need for a credible system of vocational qualifications, have then behaved as if wishing for parity of esteem would make it so.

Now both school and college inspectors have confirmed earlier impressions, and some fierce external criticism, that take-up of both intermediate and advanced-level GNVQs has raced ahead of quality control and assessment systems, as well as teachers' capacity to handle them. And at the same time Sir Ron Dearing's radical proposal to introduce, through the GNVQ, a strong vocational option into the national curriculum for l4 to l6-year-olds is in serious trouble precisely because of a determination to sort out such problems before the launch, rather than after.

Paradoxically, it has been Sir Ron's insistence on turning the rhetoric into reality which has brought matters to a head. So long as politicians and officials have been content to pay lip service to the idea of a more coherent l4-l9 curriculum, giving equal weight to both academic and vocational components, it has been possible to brush aside the doubters and preserve the existing baronies. But Sir Ron meant business, and so did Michael Heron, his counterpart as chairman of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. Heads at the NCVQ, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the awarding bodies have been knocked together and a timetable set to provide pilot schemes by September of next year, with a national programme to follow.

The trouble was that as soon as the key players finally began talking seriously together, it became clear that their relative positions were irreconcilable. The NCVQ team argues with some justice that it is in the business of producing a different system, that designs courses and assessment backwards from an appreciation of the competences that young people will require in employment, and that to turn the GNVQs effectively into GCSEs and A-levels by another name risks destroying their whole point.

SCAA and the relevant Ministers remain unconvinced by the NCVQ line on coursework and assessment, a view which must be reinforced by this week's inspectors' reports.And meanwhile there is growing disquiet among teachers about the return of tick-lists and paper mountains, justwhen they thought it was safe to go back into the national curriculum.

Impasse. Although a compromise has now been cobbled together, the attenuated pilots awaiting an eleventh-hour announcement are not set fair and a national launch recedes into the distance. Since it was Sir Ron's conviction that a vocational choice was an essential motivator for many young people at l4, his sense of disappointment must be great.

None of this is to say that the vocational revolution is doomed to fail, but that it is going to take a little longer, and that much more attention and resourcing now needs to be devoted to solving practical difficulties, as well as resolving conceptual differences over the rigour of assessment.

No one is more conscious of this than the NCVQ team, who have had a timetable imposed on them, before they were ready for it or had the necessary quality control in place, and without their advice on teacher preparation being taken. In an ideal world, they would not have embarked on the l4-l6 initiative before they were confident that the brand-new advanced-level GNVQ was running smoothly, and nor indeed would they have chosen to launch that on such a massive scale before its teething troubles had been sorted out.

But there is no contradicting Sir Ron Dearing and they - like the present team of officials and ministers - had been taken by surprise by the impatient hunger of schools for almost any qualification that offered a sixth-form alternative to the exclusive A-level (though anyone around long enough to have observed its predecessors could have told them).

But time and trouble are not the only ingredients needed to sort out the difficulties or heal the deep divisions which remain. As the inspectors' reports confirm, many teachers are understandably unfamiliar with both courses and assessment methods. Training is needed on a large scale, and that costs money which so far the Government has not been prepared to provide. And if the GNVQ is to take its rightful place in the qualifications system, it must be given a points score which offers level pegging in the league tables.

Until now the Government has made the right noises about the essential role of a sound vocational qualifications system in economic and personal success. It is going to take more than that to show that it means business.

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