Vocational GCSEs to grow despite drop-outs

The new vocational alternative to GCSE is set to expand despite results showing that only half of a key national target group completed the course.Overall, two-thirds of the pupils on the new GNVQ part one completed the programme of study by July 31, a result which brought congratulations from the Government and a cautious welcome from curriculum bodies.

But among students entered at the most basic "foundation level" - equivalent to two GCSE passes at grades D-G - the completion rate was only 52.6 per cent. A further 12 per cent completed the "key skills" half of the course.

It is hoped that the GNVQ part one will prove suitable for some of the most academically vulnerable students, offering an alternative approach to study.

At present GCSE is thought to be failing some 46,000 16-year-old s who leave school without

any qualification.

The completion rates were higher - at 71.2 per cent - among students at intermediate level, which is equivalent to two GCSE passes at A*-C.

The course had been designed to offer a vocational alternative to GCSEs but also, crucially, to attract and motivate non-academic students in danger of dropping out of school.

Feedback from the 115 schools involved in the first pilot has been positive, with students enthused by the work. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Secondary Heads' Association also say it has gone well despite a heavier workload and higher costs for schools.

Praise was added by education minister Dr Kim Howells, who said: "The first GNVQ part one students have set a high standard in this new qualification." He called the course "a high-quality addition to the educational landscape for 14-16-year-olds".

Overall, 64.5 per cent of the 5,000 pupils registered to complete the course by the end of July did so, and more are expected to complete over the summer.

The qualification, a combination of assessed course work and portfolios and external exams, is made up of six units - three vocational and three key skills. It takes up 20 per cent of curriculum time, running alongside compulsory GCSE subjects.

At both foundation and intermediate level, completion rates were highest in business and lowest in manufacturing; health and social care was the third option available in this first pilot year. Overall 90 per cent of students completed at least one vocational unit.

In intermediate business the completion rate reached 73.4 per cent, with one in 10 candidates gaining a distinction.

In manufacturing, the completion rate at foundation level was only 45 per cent.

Richard Larcombe, deputy chief executive of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, said he was "cautiously pleased with the completion rates".

Low rates on the foundation course showed the difficulty of balancing rigour with the aim of a low drop-out rate, he said. "I would think this compares pretty favourably to GCSE. To get a bottom grade at GCSE you have to get a very low percentage on the whole examined course. To get a pass at foundation level you've got to pass everything - all the units and all the tests," he said.

"We've thought for a long time that a foundation pass is a good deal harder than GCSE."

GNVQs part one should be available to all schools from September 1999, but the pilot has already been widely taken up. Some 250 schools took part last year - the second year of the scheme - and double that are expected to be running courses from this September.

Art and design, information technology and leisure and tourism were added to the list last year, and engineering courses begin next month.

Bob Carstairs, SHA assistant general secretary, said: "Our general impression is that those who have run them are fairly impressed by them; those that haven't remain sceptical. But students enjoy taking them."

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