Uneasy ministers press ahead

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Proposals for vocational education at 14 to be approved despite deep dissatisfaction. Ministers are set to agree to plans for the vocational education revolution for 14-year-olds even though they are deeply unhappy with the complex exam scheme proposed.

Final proposals from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority were put to the Government this week. They were discussed in top level meetings involving Education Secretary Gillian Shephard, Employment Secretary Michael Portillo and Welsh Secretary John Redwood.

Critics warn that "a rag-bag of assessment procedures" will emerge. But since the Tories have invested much political capital in vocational education, ministers see lengthy delays as unacceptable.

Publication of the blueprint has already been delayed because of deep-rooted divisions within the Government task force charged with drawing it up. Two factions within the group have been at loggerheads over which is the best testing regime.

Ministers rejected plans in September and gave Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, six weeks to come up with an acceptable scheme to pilot in schools.

They met as The TES went to press and were understood to be anxious that the joint task force of SCAA and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications had still not got it right.

But they are expected to give it the go-ahead. Senior sources within SCAA had warned that further delays could mean a national launch being postponed to as late as 1998.

Sir Ron is now expected to announce details within the next four weeks of new qualifications to be piloted in September next year.

But the pilot will be kept very small and may run for two years before the national introduction of General National Vocational Qualifications for 14-year-olds. Cash incentives are also planned to buffer the scheme against accusations of under-funding.

A stumbling block remains over how much the course content should be defined and assessed. The NCVQ is resisting SCAA demands for national curriculum-style programmes of study for GNVQs. But there are fears that the compromise reached will lead to an unwieldy list of tasks to be covered, similar to the national curriculum statements of attainment ditched by Sir Ron.

The GNVQ post-16 was developed from workplace National Vocational Qualifications which use "competence" or skills-based tests. These have been likened to the driving test which candidates either pass or fail. They are available at foundation, intermediate and advanced levels as alternatives to GCSE resits and A-levels.

Ministerial demand for greater rigour led to the introduction of multiple-choice question papers and a grading scheme giving students a pass, merit or distinction. Further reforms are demanded for the introduction of GNVQs at 14, with more written tests.

After stiff resistance from the NCVQ, a further compromise was reached. The basic arrangements remain at passfail level but there will be extra tests to support merit and distinction.

Sir Ron is understood to feel the task force has done the best job possible since ministers set the six-week deadline. But there are still doubts within SCAA about the model. One source, close to ministers, described it as "a rag-bag of assessment procedures and elaborate rules to combine them to define a grade."

Pressure for reforms increased this week when inspectors of schools and colleges demanded urgent action to improve GNVQs post-16 (see story, page 16). Their harshest criticisms were of the intermediate level, which 14-year-olds will hope to take.

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