Pathways to a pass
Now Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications has been published, teachers of GCE business studies can see that, despite the rumours, there is no recommendation that business studies should become the province of GNVQ (or Applied A-levels) alone. However, Sir Ron's report does recommend that the Joint School Curriculum and Assessment AuthorityNational Council for Vocational Qualifications Committee should draw up guidelines to distinguish between the academic and vocational pathways. These would include the differences in the purposes of the qualifications, in the subject areas appropriate to each path- way, and in the approaches to assessment.
At GCSE, Sir Ron's report is clear that in subject areas outside the national curriculum, or where GCSE subject-specific criteria do not already exist, studies in the practical applications of knowledge and understanding should normally be considered the province of GNVQ. As GCSE subject criteria exist for business studies and economics, these subjects have an appropriate place in key stage 4 as GCSEs.
The report recognises that, although the pathways should be distinct, A-levels and GNVQs will often be taught in the same institutions, and some students may decide after starting a course that they have chosen the wrong pathway. It recommends, therefore, that awarding bodies should examine the scope for identifying common content in related areas of modular A-levels and GNVQs so that common elements could be taught together, allowing students to change pathways after, say, the first term.
Sir Ron's report proposes that A-level subject cores and syllabuses be reviewed to identify the scope for building in skills of communication, the application of number and information technology, and other skills valued by employers and higher education.
The business studies core states that students should acquire and demonstrate skills of communication, critical understanding, investigation, numeracy and problem solving. Students should understand the importance of seeing problems through different perspectives, working with others and contributing in teams. They should also have an appreciation of the importance of IT in business.
The economics subject core requires students to communicate clearly and concisely results of investigations into economic problems. The ability to handle data, including understanding and interpreting economic data presented in verbal, numerical or graphical form; and translating such data from one form to another, is also a requirement. Both subjects have an important role in the development of core skills. To make them explicit within syllabuses would be a helpful development and particularly relevant for students hoping to gain the new National Advanced Diploma proposed in Sir Ron's report.
Sir Ron has recommended that a National Diploma should be awarded to students whose achievements at Advanced level include studies in depth and breadth. Students would be required to gain two A-levels or the full GNVQ at Advanced level; breadth would be provided by studies in complementary areas, so that, between the studies in depth and those in breadth, four broadly defined areas of study would be covered: science, technology, engineering, mathematics; modern languages; the arts and humanities (including English and Welsh) and the way the community works. To ensure a sufficient level of achievement in each area, each would be studied to the minimum of a reformulated AS representing the level of achievement expected after one full year's Advanced level study. Students would also need to have achieved the three key skills of communication, application of number and IT.
Business studies, economics, law, psychology, sociology and government and politics all come under the category of the way the community works. Business studies and economics have an important role to play here. For example, the economics core emphasises the study of current economic issues. The business studies core emphasises a critical understanding of the perspectives of all stakeholders - customer, manager, creditor, ownershareholder and employee.
Economics A-levels, revised to incorporate the core, were introduced last September. A number of these new syllabuses are modular. Two of the new schemes contain content matched to GNVQ, assisting those considering teaching GCE and GNVQ together.
Many see modular syllabuses as having advantages in motivating students and increased flexibility, but there are potential disadvantages. For example, a student may be demotivated by a poor module result, or may feel over-assessed. The rapid increase in the take-up of modular A-levels has raised management issues for schools and colleges arising from the different patterns of examination sessions of the awarding bodies. Sir Ron suggests that the Joint Committee and awarding bodies consider further a common timetable for modular examinations.
Another important initiative is the Part One GNVQ in business available as a pilot. Recognising the value of vocational education at KS4, but aware that a full GNVQ taking up about 40 per cent of curriculum time might be difficult to accommodate, Sir Ron has suggested that three vocational units, together with the core skills, should be selected to form a Part One GNVQ. The Part One GNVQ in business is available at foundation and intermediate levels. Novel assessment features include a controlled assignment which is set by the awarding body for review by a panel of subject experts. Teachers then receive feedback about standards of marking.
Liz Francis is the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's professional officer for business and economics