Make the GNVQ more user friendly

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Alison Wolf's vocational qualifications report has led to extreme reactions from commentators such as Andrew Brown and Stephen Crowne.

There is widespread agreement over the need for a range of qualifications which encourage people to gain vocationally relevant skills without restricting them to a narrow choice of careers.

The problem, as the latest survey from Professor Alison Wolf reveals all too clearly, is that our existing general national vocational qualifications do not achieve that.

To get an advanced GNVQ typically takes two years and at the end of that two years you either achieve the whole thing or get a certificate of achievement that is not recognised as an entry qualification for anything.

In two years an awful lot can happen to a young person who is interested in training for a career. They can, for instance, be offered a job. If they take it, even if they have passed most of their course with flying colours, they then have no worthwhile qualification to fall back on when they are ready to progress. And the same thing happens if they have a long illness, leave the country, or become pregnant, all of which have happened to promising GNVQ students in my faculty.

This is not the way to design a qualification to meet the needs of consumers. What students need is smaller units which can be achieved more rapidly and which actually count for something independently. That way, students leaving a course will have a worthwhile credit for their achievements. The new Government could respond to this need by developing a new structure for the GNVQ and creating something between intermediate and advanced GNVQ.

I sincerely hope it will not. It is extremely difficult to establish new qualifications and to persuade the market of their value. It is much better to work with the market and build on what the public already values.

If we are honest, what the public understands and values best are A-levels and GCSEs. If we want to encourage people to study more practical, relevant and, I would argue, more interesting alternative qualifications, we need to change people's assumptions about the value of vocational qualifications. That is a hard enough task without also persuading them to understand a separate qualification structure.

Wouldn't it be better to work with public perceptions and offer vocational qualifications as part of the A-level and GCSE structure? There is no reason why business studies, or information technology or leisure and tourism have to be complete alternatives to academic studies. Yet, despite the original ideals of the GNVQ, that is what they are for 95 per cent of students.

Offering modular GNVQ qualifications of the same size as single subject A-levels would enable students to choose between A-level tourism instead of A- level geography and still select A-level English and history. It is easier to see why a bright, capable A-level student would select business finance as an alternative to A-level economics than it is to see why they would abandon the reliable A-level qualification route for a GNVQ qualification which has been renamed and reorganised more times than the British Rail ticketing policy.

It is also easier to see why a university could be persuaded to make a standard entry offer to a student who has qualifications it understands than to one who is a product of the existing GNVQ grading system.

Almost no one thinks that this grading system is a good one. To pass an advanced GNVQ you have to complete at least seven multiple choice tests with marks of 70 per cent or above. More significantly, you are required to produce extensive practical assignment work on each of 12 units and proof of achievement in the key skills of numeracy, communication and IT.

The combination can make the qualifications at least as challenging as traditional A-levels and yet students struggle to get recognition for their achievements from the best universities and from employers. Often they are asked to achieve merit or distinction grades in addition to their pass by people who have almost no understanding of the grading system.

If this sounds an unfair assertion, I challenge any researcher to conduct a test among university admissions staff or employer personnel officers to see how many of them could explain the GNVQ grading system. I would be astonished if more than 20 per cent of them could.

This is not because such people are lazy or ill-informed. It is because it takes at least 10 years for any qualification to achieve acceptance and understanding in the marketplace and because the GNVQ grading system is so obscure that it takes a good hour to explain properly.

As a grading system it has so many faults that it is hard to know where to begin and end. Students cannot give a prospective employer proof of which parts of a two-year course were their strengths. They can only say they have an overall grade of pass, merit or distinction and that this was mainly done on their ability to plan and organise work rather than on the quality of that work.

An A-level student is graded at each subject separately and has six different grades available to describe achievement. A GNVQ student has only three; difficult borderline decisions have a cruder impact. More importantly, that student faces a labour market which largely doesn't understand whether a merit is better than a distinction and whether either of them is worth university entry or a job offer.

Grading GNVQs on the existing A-level system would be a much better alternative. It would be the quickest, simplest way to establish the value of these qualifications with students, parents, university admissions officers and employers.

The recent mergers among the examination bodies, such as that of the Business and Technology Education Council and the University of London into EDEXCEL, have created structures which make possible a genuine merger of the academic and the vocational. If we really want to give status to vocational training then we need to stop fighting the marketplace and take advantage of these new structures.

Vocational education has remained proudly separate of the A-level and GCSE structure. What has it got us? Endless reorganisations and a completely confused public. Perhaps the time has come to recognise that, by swallowing our pride and using that structure, we could achieve our aims more effectively.

Andrew Brown is head of the business and general education faculty at Keighley College, West Yorkshire

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