Overhaul has made the GNVQ more deliverable, but even less desirable, say Nicholas Pyke and Lucy Ward.
Teachers and students are to be freed from the "assessment treadmill" dogging general national vocational qualifications as part of a wholesale shake-up intended to cut bureaucracy while increasing the rigour of the four-year-old awards.
In a package of changes devised after independent reviews confirmed the need for radical reform of GNVQs, tick-box marking and multiple-choice tests are to go in favour of more external checks and in-depth testing.
The revised GNVQ model shifts the assessment style away from the industry-inspired model, with its focus on process, and towards the standards-driven approach typical of academic qualifications.
The changes to assessment and grading are now being piloted in schools and colleges, but ministers' "new generation" of GNVQs will not be widely available until autumn 1998. In the meantime, more than 1,000 individual units which compose the qualifications must be rewritten.
The National Council for Vocational Qualifications, which oversees GNVQ development, this week admitted the changes were still only the "tip of the iceberg", with much of the detail still to be worked out.
The loudest complaint made by schools and colleges during the inquiry into GNVQs by Exeter College principal Dr John Capey, published early this year, centred on the time-consuming assessment burden causing disillusion among both students and staff.
Teachers and lecturers were required to assess each individual element of student work under a regime that focused on achieving coverage of the syllabus. The result, admits NCVQ chief adviser Gordon Stobart, was a system in which "students were going through the motions of covering everything, even if it meant copying out of textbooks, but didn't see the relevance of it. Teachers were having to put together a jigsaw puzzle to do the assessment."
Under the new GNVQ model, assessment will no longer focus on tiny steps but on whole units - the major building blocks that make up the awards. There are 12 units in an advanced GNVQ and six in the intermediate qualification.
For each unit, students will have to produce one substantial piece of high-quality work as the culmination of a period of study. Teachers will assess this "demonstration piece" rather than an entire unit portfolio.
Though the switch is likely to be greeted with relief by those delivering GNVQs, those responsible for creating the qualifications now face a mammoth task reshaping each unit to suit the new procedures.
In a change aimed at scotching scepticism over the rigour of GNVQ assessment, the widely criticised multiple-choice tests which indicate merely a pass or fail for each unit will be scrapped in favour of fewer but more comprehensive tests involving lengthy written answers. Papers will be marked by external examiners and will contribute to grading for the first time.
On top of tougher tests, students will have to complete an externally set and moderated assignment for each GNVQ that will also contribute to grading. The assignment, entirely new for GNVQs and recommended by Capey, is designed to help benchmark standards.
In a further move to answer criticism over variable standards, quality assurance measures for GNVQs will be changed. The focus will shift from procedures, checked through visits by external verifiers, to standards of students' work. There will be more external moderation of work using a sampling system similar to the process used to check standards of GCSE coursework.
In answer to concerns raised in the Capey study and confirmed by Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications, testing of the key skills of communication and application of number and information technology will no longer be mingled with assessment of students' portfolio work.
Instead, the key skills - uniquely a mandatory component of GNVQs - will be tested separately from the rest of the qualification through set assignments and a maths test. The change will reduce teachers' marking burden while also creating free-standing units which, in line with Sir Ron's recommendations, could also form the basis of a new key skills AS level on offer to all advanced-level students.
That development is one of many still to come as the Dearing report is translated into practice. Work is continuing at NCVQ to develop a part-one GNVQ and to consider a six-unit single award at advanced level to provide an equivalent to one A-level.