IT HAS become accepted truth that the huge explosion in schools' use of vocational qualifications is a result of tactical attempts to climb league tables. But, unbowed by a blizzard of headlines about "Mickey Mouse" courses, some heads have continued to claim that these much-derided qualifications help to motivate disaffected pupils. Now they have an important ally.
Stephen Twigg, Labour's shadow education secretary, has decided to take issue with the arguments on vocational qualifications in schools made by Professor Alison Wolf in her government-commissioned review last year.
"Where we didn't agree with her was over her rather dismissive view that vocational options don't make any difference to those who are disaffected," Mr Twigg told the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors. "We need to get more evidence about whether this is the case because plenty of people, including heads and teachers, are strongly suggesting the opposite is true."
Professor Wolf certainly sought to tackle some common beliefs about vocational courses. "Claims are often made that vocational options motivate young people more and therefore lead to them achieving higher grades in their other subjects; and that such options also stop them from dropping out and 'becoming Neet (not in employment, education or training)'," her review says. "Indeed, a good number of submissions to the review treated it as self-evident that this was the case."
But Professor Wolf did not find any indication that pupils made "substantial improvements in their general attainment as a result of taking more vocational courses".
It is on, the face of it, a pretty damning conclusion that seems to leave Mr Twigg and heads who argue that vocational qualifications motivate pupils with nowhere to go.
The review cites international research suggesting that vocational qualifications make no significant difference to drop-out rates. It adds that government statistics and analysis from 2005-06 show that taking vocational rather than academic GCSEs made no difference to the "later trajectories" of disengaged pupils. Moreover, the review notes, when school pupils began to take large quantities of non-GCSE vocational qualifications in 2007, there was no major increase in staying-on rates.
But John Dunford, chairman of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, argues that this does not mean they are worthless. "I don't think there is any question that vocational qualifications are good motivators for young people, so long as they are marked by properly qualified assessors," he said. "They are taught and assessed in different ways from other qualifications and not everybody is suited to courses that have to be learned and regurgitated."
But what of Professor Wolf's warning of a lack of evidence about vocational courses making a difference to "general attainment"?
The Young Apprenticeships scheme - aimed at able pupils - improved overall scores on league table GCSE measures. But, the Wolf review notes, this was achieved through the extra equivalent qualifications rather than "a positive wash-back into school-based GCSEs". Some might find this unsurprising since such pupils would have had less time to devote to those GCSEs. They might also argue that higher attainment in vocational qualifications could be an end in itself.
The Wolf review does not, in fact, quote any research that actually disproves the idea that vocational qualifications motivate pupils and reduce disruption in schools.
Professor Wolf's response is that she never set out to disprove the case for vocational qualifications, merely to question the case for them and to ensure that only "good" ones are used.
The resulting new rules that make all qualifications worth just one GCSE in the league tables, regardless of teaching time, are certainly likely to end schools' use of them for tactical league table purposes.
But others, who fear they will also lead to less motivated pupils, will be heartened by Mr Twigg's support.
What it means
Under reforms triggered by the Wolf review, the number of vocational courses that count towards the main GCSE league table performance measure will be reduced from 3,175 to 70 from 2014.
- But much of the recent explosion in vocational courses taken in schools may remain - a 24,458 per cent increase between 2003 and 2010, according to Professor Wolf.
- At least 340,000 of the 462,182 results in GCSE-level vocational qualifications in schools in 200910 were in courses likely to survive in some form under revised rules.
- But to count these courses will have to include a "substantial" proportion of external assessment and offer "proven progression into a broad range of further qualifications or careers".