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The thorny issue of GNVQs versus A-levels

It's the evaluation and review season; time to take up again the still thorny General National Vocational Qualification question, for recently those who have, since the qualification was first introduced, said that it didn't work are at it again. Most parties want vocational education to work; they just don't think GNVQ does.

On a number of points we have no quarrel with Professor Smithers (TES, June 13). John Ruskin College does not offer manufacturing, the built environment or media studies, the latter being what we would most likely introduce because we know it would be popular. But we know that employers in the media do not require - and in some cases actively don't want - a media studies qualification at level 3, or even at level 4. What they want is a broad base of academic study in areas that will inform a budding journalist, say, and evidence of good communication and interpersonal skills.

We agree with Sir Ron Dearing's proposal that GNVQ be offered in similar sizes to A- and AS-level qualifications; this would increase the flexibility of our curriculum offer. We also believe that the option of a double award should remain. Clearly, Professor Smithers is right to point out that there are "vocational" A-levels which are duplicated by GNVQ. At the moment it is possible to choose between them because one is only half the size of the other, but it will be even more difficult if that changes.

Nevertheless, the answer to his question "Do those who can, do A-level, and those who can't, do GNVQ?" is "No; that isn't how it works". In this college there are several ways of deciding which course to follow. Some students with very high GCSE grades choose GNVQ, and some decide on the more vocational option because they have one outstanding talent, such as for art and design, and know already that they want to progress this with a career in mind. Others, less sure of their artistic marketability or career intentions, prefer to take art and design as one of three equal A-level subjects. There is no feeling among our art or business students that one lot is able and one lot isn't.

If GNVQs were exclusively focused on preparation for technician or intermediate grade occupations, able students would be deprived of choice. More important, many 16-year-olds are ambitious - and so they should be. Some of them are unduly ambitious, as it turns out. That is for them to discover. Far too many students in the past have had to struggle for success against their teachers' predictions and remember their education as having played no part in what they later achieved. So it is vital that they can select a course with progression to the levels they are currently aspiring to, as well as to lower levels if our guesses about their potential are correct.

The other reason why students choose GNVQ lies in the way in which the course is delivered. Some students, whose GCSE grades may be modest, are simply unsuited to courses in which theoretical concepts are unrelated to their practical applications. Some cannot write to time and have never finished an examination in their lives. But many - and these include the most able - are attracted by a course that will afford them more opportunity for developing their learning individually than many A-levels will, as well as one which builds in work experience in their vocational area. Students who gain distinctions have often built portfolios in which the level of work reaches a standard that more rigidly structured A-levels do not encourage them to attain.

Of course, it is true to say that GNVQ can afford some students opportunities that they could never have taken up by following a more academic route. Since in our college we have the same entry qualification requirement for GNVQ as for A-level, some cannot start any advanced course on enrolment; those who arrive without any A-C grades at GCSE usually follow the foundation course. In the past they would not have continued in full-time education because there were no suitable courses; now they have a chance to progress to modern apprenticeships after a year concentrating on improving their basic skills. Others will progress to the intermediate level.

And now from among them is emerging the small but significant group of students who move from foundation to intermediate to advanced GNVQ, and, in our college, the first one who will be progressing to a degree course. Such students will always be few in number, but that is no reason why they should, as in the past, be lost because the system fails them. Indeed, it is of such students that I think when I deplore the idea that lifelong learning should be thought of as beginning at 19. Every student who succeeds at 16-plus against the traditional odds is a student who will not need remediating later, and is already a beneficiary of widening participation.

Parity of esteem demands effort from those who seek it. On behalf of our students we have managed to achieve it from local employers and universities, and as they see the real quality of what the GNVQ students offer, they are happy to accept others from the same stable. The ideal curriculum for 16 to 19-year-olds would be one in which the students can be offered a mix of A-level or GCSE modules and GNVQ units so that all can select what best suits their talents and aspirations; it would be for employers and universities to specify which units and modules were compulsory for their particular needs and which could be voluntarily chosen by the students. In this way we could offer students both what they want and what they need for the future. And so, I believe, they would be more likely to leave us with the taste for lifelong learning that is essential for their satisfaction and the country's future.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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