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Twin tracks en route to an elitist society

Pat Ainley outlines research suggesting GNVQs are becoming too academic. A two-tier elitist system of recruitment to higher education is emerging with the new vocational qualifications, according to surveys of competition for students between schools and further education colleges.

Last year, 80 per cent of 16-year-olds in England and Wales remained in education, mostly full-time. FE colleges took six out of 10 students, schools took the rest. Many of them stay for less than a year, total participation for 17 and 18-year-olds being 67.5 and 46.8 per cent respectively.

Although the rate of increase may have peaked, these figures indicate a shift from a low participation post-compulsory system to what Ken Spours, of London University Institute of Education, calls a "medium participation" system.

Ken Spours and his colleague Michael Young compared the performance of students over the age of 16 studying A-levels or GNVQs, in their Learning for the Future project.Thirty-six per cent of 16-year-olds entered for A-levels in 1993, of whom nearly one-third will predictably have failed or dropped out by this term. Approximately 25 per cent of 16-year-olds entered for GNVQs, of whom perhaps half will drop out.

The number of GNVQ intermediate and advanced courses has doubled since their introduction in September 1992. While the majority of GNVQ students are in colleges, most GNVQ assessment centres are in schools which are more likely to offer intermediate than advanced courses, save in business.

The attraction of the new qualifications to teachers is that they provide something different to do with the many students now staying on who did not get the GCSE grades to go on to A-level. Indeed, GNVQs were developed as a response to the inappropriateness of vocationally-based NVQs for full-time study.

However, GNVQs have conflicting aims - attempting to prepare students for employment and providing a route into higher education. They are also supposed to have parity of esteem with A-levels and to be related to competence-based NVQs.

As a result, reports Mr Spours, due to the real curriculum differences which have emerged between advanced GNVQs and A-levels, there is very little reference these days to the term vocational A-levels with which the Government introduced them.

At Government insistence, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications compromised on its rigid competence-based approach and introduced grading of GNVQs by external assessment. Now the council is worried that GNVQs may drift towards becoming more academic in their quest for respectability.

This would be a pity, he suggests, because GNVQs offer a real alternative to swotting for A-levels.

GNVQs also allow some negotiation between student and teacher over what is presented and how it will be assessed. This is missing from the narrowly prescribed A-level subject syllabuses. It focuses students' attention on the nature of learning - study skills that tend to be taken for granted in A-level.

Yet high drop-out rates and slow completion rates point to an award which is proving difficult to implement. Moreover, the NCVQ reported last year that very many GNVQ students aspire to higher education. So, instead of bridging the academic-vocational divide, GNVQs are functioning as substitute A-levels for jobless youngsters with lower school attainments.

But the Government has pegged entry to higher education at 30 per cent, with only modest expansion promised after 199798. So, even if all universities and HE colleges accept GNVQs for entry to all courses, there will be too few HE places for all those qualified.

As a result, large numbers of disappointed young people will soon be emerging from school or FE with nowhere to go, according to Spours and Young. This is the reality of education without jobs.

The new Americanised system can be plainly seen in a city such as Birmingham, where the FE colleges feed the former polytechnic (now University of Central England) with local students. Birmingham University continues to recruit mainly standard-age, oven-ready students nationwide. To complete the picture, there is even a US-style business school in the shape of Aston University.

This is the worst of all worlds - mass higher education for the many combined with elite higher education for the few. These divisions will have to be overcome if we want genuine mass participation in further and higher education. A redesigned 16 to 18 system of qualification and progression will be needed to achieve this.

Further information on the Learning for the Future briefing papers can be obtained from the Post-16 Centre, London University Institute of Education, 22 Bedford Way, London WC1H OAL, as can the author's report with Andy Green on Progression and targets in post-16 education and training.

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