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Vocational courses not soft option

The very strong indication from our survey of the GCSE scores in 60 per cent of local authorities is that there has been an unprecedented improvement in the percentage of pupils gaining five good grades. This is excellent news. It is unlikely to be met with rapturous headlines, however, for all the reasons most eloquently expressed by Ted Wragg on the back page this week.

This success is likely to put one particular advance under intense scrutiny: the increase in the numbers obtaining good GCSEs by proxy through the General National Vocational Qualification. It will be said - in fact it already has been on our letters page - that treating this qualification as equivalent to four GCSEs is unjustified. Some put it even more strongly, suggesting it represents a sleight of hand on the part of schools desperate to improve their league table position.

We will hear more of such "soft option" arguments - particularly from people who know little or nothing about the GNVQ and what it demands. Yet a few weeks ago, when the complaint was about the increased numbers of GCSE failure grades, the clamour was for more vocational alternatives.

Those who have experience of the GNVQ do not regard it as a soft option at all but as a rigorous and motivating course which draws out from candidates far more work than they would otherwise have done at key stages 3 and 4. It is a qualification originally designed to be offered post-16. One of the great advantages of it, in fact, is that even if a pupil does not pass it all at school - and unlike GCSE they do have to pass every component of it - it provides curricular continuity spanning the 14-19 age range and beyond. The pass-rate of just 75 per cent of the 75,000 entries this year does not suggest it is a soft option, either.

Equivalence is a slippery term. GNVQ is not the same as GCSE. GCSE is not same as O-level. And there are dubious equivalences between different GCSE subjects, which bring into question the whole idea of a target based on any old GCSEs.

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