It's not about league tables, it's about life chances

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
The recent media frenzy about the way schools use GNVQ courses to inflate their results misses the point - which is that by following such courses, many students have improved their qualifications and thereby their life chances. I see the increase in any school's five A*-C percentage as a result of offering GNVQ courses as merely "the icing on the cake".

As a maths and computing specialist school, we endeavour to provide a curriculum that has a distinctive maths and computing flavour to it. We achieve this mainly by offering as many maths and computing courses as possible at all key stages. Such an approach is fairly easy in a school with performing arts status: media, dance, drama, music, art, theatre studies, and so on, can all be offered at key stage 4. But the picture is different for maths and computing. Once you have decided on which maths GCSE to offer, the only other maths-based GCSE available is statistics.

It's similar with ICT. What else is there after GCSE? The decision to offer the GNVQ course was more about meeting the requirements of specialist status by providing students with a choice of courses than an attempt to "hike" our results.

Although all Year 10 was given a "free choice" - either GCSE ICT and French, or GNVQ ICT - most able pupils went for the double GCSE and most less able for the GNVQ. No surprise there, then. What was surprising was how motivating the GNVQ course proved to be. Students loved the feedback from the regular external module exams because they could see they were making progress. They loved acquiring new ICT skills because these helped them with other work, and they enjoyed the course work element that enabled them to show what they could do without the time constraints of a formal exam.

Nearly all students took to the GNVQ ICT course with ease. Ninety-seven per cent of them passed in the first year we offered it. This was as much a reflection of how motivated they were by it, as how much their teachers liked its format and vocational nature. We boosted their motivation by arranging with the local college to allow any student gaining the GNVQ at merit - that is, the equivalent of four A*-C passes - to progress to level 3 courses in subjects such as the applied A-level in ICT. Many of our students went along that route, and are now following two-year further education courses.

Surely that has to be a good thing? It is pretty certain that if they hadn't followed the GNVQ course, they would not have achieved the equivalent four GCSEs through the more traditional route, and would probably have left school at 16 destined for low-paid, boring jobs. Every year, in order to denigrate the efforts of teachers and students across the country, the media trots out the old argument that examinations are getting easier. I see the recent condemnation of GNVQ courses as a variation of this. The media doesn't like these courses because they think they are "easy".

Somewhere, someone decided, having studied the GNVQ course design and syllabus, that the course would be equivalent to four GCSE grades at C or above. Schools did not decide this, nor did the students. If it was the wrong decision and the course should not be equivalent to four GCSE grades at C and above, then someone, somewhere, needs to address this. In the meantime, blaming schools and students for choosing it, and denigrating their efforts, is not helpful.

I don't care about league tables. What I care about is enabling the students attending my school to achieve all that they can. If this means offering a GNVQ course in ICT, or any other subject for that matter, that is what we shall do. If one student has their life chances improved as a consequence it will have been worth it. What I say to those of you who are not offering GNVQ courses is, "Why not?"

Vanessa Ray is headteacher of Shenley Brook End school, Milton Keynes

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