What's in a new name is not nearly enough

8th March 1996 at 00:00
If the leaks from Sir Ron Dearing's review of qualifications for 16 to 19 year-olds are to be believed, it looks as though he is going to recommend that advanced general national vocational qualifications become applied A-levels. As this is something I have argued for, I should be very pleased. And so I am - in principle. Britain badly needs respected qualifications in applied education.

But the leaks also suggest it is only really a name change; and for the reform to work there has to be more. The trouble with GNVQs is that they started in the wrong place.

They are offshoots of NVQs, the essence of which is to qualify people for the job they already have. Lists are drawn up of what you have to do, for example, as a lift operator, care worker or double-glazing salesperson. What you can already do is noted, and what is lacking must be made good.

Employers have welcomed the approach because it gives them a nationally agreed set of job requirements to which their employees can be held. The lower than expected take-up, however, may mean that employers are more interested in the requirements as a management tool than in awarding qualifications.

But whatever the use in the workplace, it is not a good way of laying down the training of those preparing for work, and it is even less appropriate as a basis for applied study in schools and colleges.

It is too bitty and disjointed, and it entails unwieldy and unreliable assessment.The obvious approach, followed by many other countries and ourselves before the advent of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, is to specify the content and assessment.

Sir Ron Dearing and the School Assessment and Curriculum Authority attempted to do this in drawing up the pilot GNVQ Part Ones for 14 to 16-year-olds, but hit the brick wall of the NCVQ's supposed model.

At one stage, such was the hiatus, I believe, that different SCAA and NCVQ versions of the same course appeared, split by a line down the middle of the page. On the left was NCVQ's performance criteria, range requirements and evidence indicators and, on the right, SCAA's programme of study.

With assessment, SCAA seems to be getting there. In the pilot Part Ones, the external tests are to count towards the grading (why did they ever not?), and there is to be an externally set assignment.

But, on content, SCAA seems to have lost out, with its programmes of study being slimmed down to mere amplification and guidance.

Sir Ron's review of the qualifications framework is a golden opportunity to put applied education on the map. For too long, Britain has been strong on academic education and winning Nobel prizes but has left it to others to exploit our discoveries.

Applied learning differs from academic study in that its focus is a particular set of practical activities. These define the area just as the different ways of making sense of the world define academic subjects. Health and social care, leisure and tourism and the performing arts are emerging practical subjects. As we have seen with the A-levels in business and in art and design, applied learning can be accepted as the full equivalent of academic learning.

GNVQs as presently constituted, however, are second rate. Those who can do A-level; those who can't do GNVQs.

There is a massive drop-out between registration and completion, with fewer than half those signing up achieving a result. This gives the lie to the claim that GNVQs offer an attractive learning style. One of the reasons so many drop out is that they are bored to death by the repetitious collection of evidence for their portfolios.

Sir Ron accepts that the pass rate is low but suggests this is due to the size of the GNVQ. His solution, canvassed in the interim report, is to re-package the 12 units of the advanced GNVQ in blocks of six to give A-levels, and three to give the proposed new AS-level.

It is not clear whether the foundation and intermediate GNVQs are to be similarly re-packaged as four or five GCSEs but, if so, that would be spreading the six units rather thinly. Neither do we know if the higher-level GNVQs are to be re-named.

It may be that I am being too impatient and Sir Ron is concentrating on the broad structure of qualifications, leaving the details to be settled by the regulatory body. But what is that to be?

Other leaks suggest Sir Ron is thinking of a new qualifications authority for 14-19 education. If this means the end of the NCVQ and its odd ideas, all well and good.

However, it looks as though GCSEs and A-levels may be taken away from SCAA and given to the new body along with GNVQs and NVQs. This sounds very much like an enhanced NCVQ which, in my view, would be disastrous.

I can see the logic of having one authority for GCSEs, A-levels and GNVQs, but NVQs are something different.

Separating them off, perhaps to a successor of the NCVQ, would open the way to fresh thinking on the traineeships for 14 to 19- year-olds that Sir Ron is also said to be recommending.

The description of Sir Ron in The TES's quote of the week as being "brilliant at finding the 80 per cent solution" was spot on. In the case of GNVQs, 80 per cent is a name change, yes, but also one specifying systematic content and appropriate assessment.

Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University.

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