Schools are flocking to take up a new OCR course. Is this because it's not too demanding?
IF THERE were prizes for the popularity of qualifications, then the OCR national level 2 in ICT would win.
The course was only introduced in September and the exam board has already seen more than 26,500 pupils from more than 300 schools entered.
And this, according to an OCR spokeswoman, is "just the tip of an iceberg", as schools can download the course requirements from the internet, but do not need to register until the coursework is complete.
By then, the board estimates 1,800 schools will have signed up - which equates to half of all secondaries in England and Wales.
This projection is backed up by the North West Learning Grid, a consortium of local authorities, that has already provided around 1,200 schools with resources for the qualification.
Originally, many schools offered the controversial GNVQ in ICT, which critics described as a "soft option" that schools exploited to climb the league tables.
Schools offering the GNVQ could gain the equivalent of four A*-C GCSEs per pupil in the time it would have taken to teach a maths GCSE.
As the GNVQ was phased out, Edexcel's Diploma in Digital Applications (DiDA) was seen as the natural successor.
But as The TES revealed last year, schools quickly got cold feet when they found it was impossible to get good diploma grades without devoting more time than had been needed for the GNVQ.
Now Edexcel's competitor OCR is doing brisk business with its alternative.
If the West Midlands National Strategies consultants are right, it could be the "quick fix" that schools have been missing. They found that only a distinction in an OCR national - supposedly worth an A* GCSE - fully matched the national curriculum standards expected of a 14-year-old. Pass and merit standards were even lower.
That conclusion is not unexpected. Before Christmas a contributor to an online message board on ICT qualifications wrote: "I can imagine colleges and employers might soon dismiss OCR nationals as being 'too easy' and not rigorous enough and want more convincing evidence of ICT capability."
But it is a view entirely rejected by Mike Reid, an ICT teacher at Broughton Hall high in Liverpool.
His department uses the course instead of a GCSE and has entered around 120 pupils. But he said he was motivated by their needs rather than league tables.
Mr Reid said the GNVQ ICT was never offered at Broughton Hall and the diploma was dropped because of its "subjective" marking scheme - not because it was too difficult or time consuming.
"The OCR national is no less difficult. In fact, it is probably harder," he said. "But it does set out exactly what pupils need to do to get a pass."
He believed any suggestion that it was worth less than a GCSE grade C had not taken into account the transferable skills and understanding gained by pupils if it was taught properly.
But an experienced local authority ICT adviser, who wished to remain anonymous, argued: "The need for an easy life has created a demand for easy certificates - heads love it.
"People will enter pupils who would get E or D grades in GCSEs in other subjects, knowing they can get an equivalent of a C in ICT through this qualification if pupils are well managed.
"Schools have become used to getting that with GNVQs, but are not getting the same value added with DiDA, which is why they are switching."
Simon Bailey, from the North West Learning Grid, said difficulties in assessing the diploma had been a big reason.
But when asked if the switch had anything to with league tables, he said:
"I would be very surprised if it didn't, because schools are judged on their results."
Example requirements from the compulsory "ICT skills for business" unit of the OCR national level 2 in ICT: Reply to an email and include an attachment.
Forward the email to two other pupils with an appropriate subject heading and message.
To gain a merit (judged the equivalent of GCSE grade B) and distinction (GCSE grade A*): Use an address book to store at least two email addresses.
Create an email signature for all outgoing messages.
Use the address book to CC and BCC a message.
Set the priority of an email to high or low.
Know how to reduce the risks involved in receiving and opening email attachments.