Vocational qualifications will have to include external assessments and new units that test students' ability to display their accumulated learning if they are to count in league tables, according to plans announced by the government.
The Department for Education expects its proposed changes to discount all but 10 per cent of the 4,000 current vocational qualifications, although the Association of Colleges said many of these were rarely used. The DfE will also divide them into two categories: applied general qualifications and occupational qualifications. The latter are defined as preparing students specifically for entry into a job, with the DfE claiming that the majority of vocational learning at the moment fits into the applied general category.
Only about 7 per cent of 16- to 18-year-old students at level 3 were studying for occupational qualifications, compared with 42 per cent taking general vocational qualifications, according to provisional figures for 2012.
By 2018, applied general qualifications will need to be redesigned to include at least 150 guided learning hours, to have a system of grading more wide-ranging than just pass or fail to motivate students, to include external assessment and ban repeat submissions of coursework, and to provide "synoptic assessment" - a test of accumulated knowledge, combining skills and knowledge from different units.
"For vocational education to be valued and held in high esteem we must be uncompromising about its quality. Vocational qualifications must be stretching and strong," said Matthew Hancock, the FE minister. "At the moment, too many students are spending time working hard but getting nowhere. This is not their fault. The vocational courses they are taking have limited value in the jobs market. But because they count equally in the performance tables, they appear to have the same value. This is not true."
But Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges, said that an increasing emphasis on external tests at the end of the course could undermine a style of learning under which many students thrive. "The government is perhaps misunderstanding why we do regular internal assessments. Girls do much better under continuous assessment. Employers want to know if someone will apply themselves over a continued period of time, not just on the morning of a test," she said.
Occupational qualifications will have to meet different criteria from general vocational qualifications. As well as being at least 150 guided learning hours long and incorporating synoptic assessment, they will need to have endorsement from employers, who will be expected to take a role in the assessment of the qualification to ensure that it meets the changing demands of the workplace.
But Ms Mercer warned that employers may not have the capacity to take on this role, given the demands of business.
Occupational qualifications will have to demonstrate progression to higher education, with at least two years of data. Awarding bodies will also have to justify not offering grades beyond pass and fail. Both types of vocational qualification will have to prove their relevance by having more than 100 students enrolled nationally.
A similar exercise for level 2 courses suggested that many familiar qualifications such as BTECs and City amp; Guilds will be retained. For the 2015 league tables, 117 qualifications have been approved, including 60 BTECs, 11 City amp; Guilds, 11 from OCR and 10 from NCFE.
Pearson president Rod Bristow welcomed the changes. "At a time when the demands of higher education and the needs of employers are changing rapidly, it is right that we should be reviewing vocational qualifications, just as we are academic qualifications," he said.
"Young people deserve assurance that the qualifications they take in school or at college will give them the knowledge and skills they need to go on and meet their ambitions, and will not close off opportunities."
Criteria for applied general qualifications to count in league tables include:
150 guided learning hours;
a grading system of fail, pass, merit and distinction or a more detailed scale;
a "significant amount" of external assessment;
content relevant for the vocational sector and skills that enable progression to HE;
at least 100 students in five centres in their first year.
Criteria for occupational qualifications include:
150 guided learning hours;
awarding bodies must justify not having a grading system;
qualifications must be endorsed by employers;
assessors must have recent industry experience, with employers involved;
evidence of progression to HE.