Ministers keep worrying away at vocational qualifications with their hopes. fears and doubts, but are they asking the right questions? This week Gillian Shephard was in hopeful mode as she announced a 79 per cent success rate for general national vocational qualifications (page 1). It wasn't long, though, before the critics had trawled through the figures to confirm their own doubts and to seek explanations for a seemingly massive drop-out rate. The lost 50,000 students represented a far larger discrepancy between the numbers registered two years previously and this summer's test results than was the case last year, with the first full batch of GNVQ results.
The explanation produced last autumn was that GNVQ courses may not fit as neatly into two years as A-levels, since they can be taken at the student's own pace and spread into a third year. Indeed, some of last year's missing students may well be swelling this year's total, thus casting further doubts on the Education Secretary's so-called success rate.
The sceptics claim that this is not sufficient explanation now and that we must also have a serious drop-out problem, as indeed we may. We do not have enough information, though perhaps we should not be surprised given that we already know that nearly a third of all students fail to complete their further education courses. And, as Hilary Steedman's latest study for the Centre for Economic Performance (FE Focus. page 13) notes, recent improvements in participation rates for Britain's 16 and 17-year-olds are grinding to a halt.
Does that mean that, after all the effort that has gone into revamping vocational qualifications, our most reluctant learners are still not persuaded that they are the best route into a job, if not into more education and training? And could they be right? The answer is obviously more complicated, and it is worth taking a look at the pattern emerging in sixth forms, where the new GNVQ was seized on with such alacrity by schools seeking an alternative to A-levels.
Many of the new stayers-on may embark on a one-year Intermediate GNVQ, then follow up success in that with the two-year advanced course or even A-levels. That may well keep them three years in the sixth form, as might an Advanced GNVQ spread out over extra terms, but if that sends them on to university rather than a dead-end job, that has to count as a success story.
It is not, however, a success that will be chalked up to their schools in the age-related league tables, which Mrs Shephard should tackle if she is serious about the GNVQ.
Another item on her reform agenda must surely be the content of these courses. Up to now all the critics and reports have focused on standards and assessment methods, as did junior minister Lord Henley's recent announcement of a Pounds 10 million development fund to follow up on the recommendations of Sir Ron Dearing and Dr John Capey.
But this year's results ram home how very disappointing the take-up has been in key workplace areas like engineering, manufacturing and construction, while popular business studies has largely duplicated A-levels (something the Dearing proposals will tackle). Leisure and tourism has proved attractive, as did the BTEC version before it, but the real breakthrough has come with the health and social care course, which is opening up new routes to nursing and paramedical jobs. Perhaps that can point the way to necessary rethinking.
The GNVQ is still a very new qualification, rushed out on demand without enough preparation, but offering plenty to build on. This week's mixed messages should point the way to future change, rather than a successfailure squabble.