Estelle Maxwell investigates the standing of GNVQs in the light of two critical reports and (below) talks to two students who chose the non-traditional route. When teacher Kieron James tried to persuade a Year 11 pupil to consider taking General National Vocational Qualifications recently the response was immediate and dismissive.
"No way. I've heard about them on the telly and they're meant to be no good. I don't want something that's not worth the paper it's printed on."
Within days of their publication, media coverage of critical reports by the Office for Standards in Education and the Further Education Funding Council was in danger of radically affecting the attitudes of pupils moving to further education in a region where skills-based training is crucial.
For though the OFSTED report on the vocational alternative to A-levels and GCSEs made many positive observations, it also stated that in almost a half of the manufacturing GNVQ lessons observed, the teaching displayed "more weaknesses than strengths".
"Several teachers of manufacturing confessed that they did not really know what was required and, as a result, the assignments they set were narrowly conceived, with over-emphasis on planning skills."
Weakness in the course specifications, confusion over the standards required to meet the performance criteria, and insufficient knowledge of what a completed portfolio should contain, were among the factors which influenced standards, it said.
Despite feeling dismayed by his pupil's reaction Mr James, a business studies teacher at Haydon Bridge school, Northumberland, was not surprised at the verdicts of either the reports or their subsequent coverage in the press.
For earlier this year he helped co-ordinate and write a critique of the GNVQ assessment model sub-titled: "The Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly" which shared many of their findings.
Its finding, which sound a warning to post-16 curriculum planners in schools and colleges show: * Ninety-five per cent of the 62 teachers questioned in schools in Northumbria and Kirklees supported the rationale behind the qualifications, but many were concerned about the practicalities of assessment.
* A fundamental flaw existed in the current hybrid GNVQ model which draws exclusively upon the assessment model of the NVQ while straddling the academic and vocational courses (GCSE, A-level and NVQ) in content.
* Seventy-nine per cent of those questioned felt the performance criteria focused upon breadth of learning necessary rather than depth.
* Some teachers were struggling to interpret the recommended outcomes criteria.
Mr James says GNVQ is still in its early days - "NCVQ must seek consultation with students, teachers, employers and universities about how it should be developed.
"The crucial thing is to get some consultation going and say we recognise these are great qualifications in principle, but there are some problems with the assessment model."
The role and status of the vocational qualification are particularly vital to the economy of the North-east regions which include Tyne and Wear, Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria, he believes.
For the area has the lowest proportion of 16-year-olds continuing in education in the country, and a much lower level of qualification throughout its workforce after two decades of major restructuring of its economy.
According to the North-east of England Regional Development Strategy 1994-99, enrolments on adult education courses in the area in 1990-91 were also at a lower level with the lowest proportion of the area's workforce holding a degree or higher qualification than in any other UK region.
The report highlighted an urgent need to respond rapidly to the demands of the market place as the traditional industries - shipbuilding, steel and coal on which its prosperity was built - were replaced by service industries resulting in a shift in demand for new skills and training.
And it showed how decimation of apprenticeships in the region had left the workforce poorly prepared for retraining for the new industries - leading to high levels of long-term unemployment.
Therefore the need for GNVQ to be seen to be working and valued by employers and students in the region is particularly acute, Mr James believes.
"Education needs to respond to the demands now being made by employers.
"the large-scale introduction of vocational qualifications in the region's schools and colleges must be seen as the way forward, for as well as serving the needs of the region's employers they also provide a route into higher education."
This view is echoed by Deborah Scotson, assistant director of the Northern region of the Confederation of British Industry, who says the perceived worth of the GNVQ as a pathway to higher education or work is particularly crucial to the North-east's employers, lecturers, teachers and students.
For in spite of the decline of some of the region's traditional industries, manufacturing remains its economic driving force - with the new employers such as Nissan and Samsung offering jobs requiring professional, administrative or managerial skills.
Ms Scotson explains that though the CBI has given national sup-port to the development of the qualifications and local members believe they are essential to the region's future prosperity, many are confused by "the plethora of qualifications which had been generated.
"Many of our members have not heard of GNVQs and do not know how they differ from NVQs and I get the feeling that with all the changes that have taken place the teachers are as confused as some of the employers.
"From our point of view it is most important that the links between education and business are increased so that both employers and teachers understand each other's needs.
"At the end of the day it is important that we get GNVQ absolutely right.
"There are definitely problems which need to be ironed out, but there is a desire on the part of the students to do them and I feel they should be given the chance."