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Vocational still seen as the loser's option

Despite all the adverse criticism about general national vocational qualifications, students completing the advanced level last summer have remarkable success stories to tell.

Their results prove the error in measuring ability only against narrow academic criteria.

One student who had taken up vocational studies in art and design was applauded as a "young engineer" by the Confederation of British Industry. He is now studying for a degree in industrial design, winning a place thanks to his course work portfolio. He is very talented, yet he would have been categorised an "academic write-off" at 16 achieving only D and E grades for his nine GCSEs. Happily, he had the opportunity to realise his potential on a GNVQ course.

He is not alone. Other students who also had poor academic profiles at 16 are now at university or in employment. But vocational studies are not simply for the non-academic. Students with five or more GCSEs are glad they did GNVQs, and A-level students taking GNVQ courses or additional units have said they "benefitted enormously", and "the manufacturing course is an excellent alternative to A-level".

But the publicity only appears in the annual reports of the awarding bodies. The National Council for Vocational Qualifications is not responsible for telling us how students have fared in GNVQs.

Although post-16 provision is being fiercely debated - but only among the cognoscenti - the nation as a whole is still receiving the message that academic study is the true measure of ability, that vocational studies are for losers. But who are the real losers?

While we retain an imbalance in status between vocational and academic study we create two problems. First, with one qualification always held up as the pinnacle of attainment, and without a true picture of educational opportunities, it makes it an uphill battle to help students decide on the best course. The wrong path results in failure.

Second, we are not taking the most direct route to improving attainment at A-level or GNVQ level 3. We are adopting a high-risk position. With mobility of labour in Europe, where the UK is at the bottom of the education attainment tables, the British will find it increasingly difficult to compete.

And it is a pity the Government has rejected the idea that NCVQ should have a remit and funding to market and promote GNVQs. A marketing strategy to raise awareness and understanding of GNVQs nationally is desperately needed.

Lack of a coherent approach is failing the nation. Vocational education remains Britain's Achilles heel.We cannot achieve even a 60 per cent target for level 3 by 2000, through A-levels and a 19th-century attitude to education.

Janet Gibson is the author of All You Need To Know About GNVQs (Kogan Page)

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