Wanted: qualified, acronym-free jargon junker

David Vigar

David Vigar pleads for some plain English

Well, you have mandatory units which are compulsory; you have optional units, which are also compulsory and then you have additional units which are optional." Explaining vocational qualifications was never easy, but GNVQs stretch one's core skills to the limit.

I've just completed a second spell as a publicist in the education world. Last time it was the Certificate in Pre-vocational Education which put everyone through mental contortions. Today, if anything, the acronym algebra is more impenetrable and the jargon jungle denser.

While TES specialists may be quick to understand the complexities of General National Vocational Qualifications, trying to unravel the jargon for hard-pressed reporters on the Smalltown Herald - or even the BBC - remains a challenge not to be undertaken lightly.

I have no quarrel with the motives of those dedicated people who have spent many millions of hours designing, developing and improving these qualifications.

But the fundamental problem is that whereas in the commercial world, marketing and branding are an integral part of the system, in education they remain an afterthought. Hence, huge effort is expended on the production of new qualifications, only to be hindered by insufficient attention being given to the nomenclature, either for such concepts as units and elements, or more fundamentally for the qualifications themselves.

Cars might have taken a while longer to become universally accepted if Henry Ford had called his masterpiece an Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle (ICEV) rather than a Model T. Most readers will know and understand the thought processes that have brought us NVQs and GNVQs. Both titles are logical, accurate and sensible. The trouble is that they are about as inspiring as a cold courgette.

We have produced what are arguably the best designed vocational options the nation has ever had for 14-year-olds. And yet while those teenagers are listening to Take That and East 17, or playing Doom and SimCity, we expect them to be attracted by something that glories in the title of a Part One GNVQ.

Such turn-off titles are compounded by structural confusion. The British are used to qualifications that imply a level of achievement - O-levels, A-levels, degrees. Even "a BTEC", colloquially, means a BTEC National, widely understood to be comparable to an A-level. Yet GNVQs are available at three levels, and the now widespread use of "vocational A-levels" as shorthand only takes in the Advanced level, inevitably leading to muddle when Intermediate and Foundation GNVQs are also part of the story.

Amid the overall confusion lurk manifold little local difficulties like the existence of both a Foundation course and a Foundation GNVQ in the Art Design field. Reporting of NVQs rarely accommodates the concept of level, even though they are available at five.

And although the GNVQ is, logically, an extension of the NVQ - both descriptive titles for a qualification - the everyday reality is that an NVQ is a measure of achievement, typically arrived at after part-time study and projects by working adults, while a GNVQ is a course taken by teenagers. I recently saw a senior MP get up in the House of Commons to praise "the new NCVQs".

The conceptual thinking to understand all this means that, despite the best efforts of the real National Council for Vocational Qualifications, few outside education and personnel have a clear mental picture of the National Framework.

So what's to be done? NVQs and GNVQs now been around too long to change their official titles. Because certain key people do understand what at least some individual qualifications are, most importantly the students taking them, it would be silly, and yet another upheaval, to scrap the titles altogether.

However, if there are steps that can be taken to differentiate qualifications more clearly while also giving them more accessible names for everyday use, then they should be taken. Sir Ron Dearing is a man who can clearly think both vertically and laterally and one of his major tasks must be to bring some clarity out of the confusion.

I would advocate leaving the now well-understood GCSEs and A-levels alone on the "academic" ladder and, at the other side, wed the idea of level more strongly to the NVQs by attaching the number to the acronym. Encourage people to say they are doing an NVQ2 rather than the mouthful of a "Level 2 NVQ" which inevitably becomes just any old "NVQ".

Meanwhile, I would leave "GNVQs" as official titles, but use them less and less, instead cultivating new nicknames which position the qualifications more explicitly. I would allow "vocational A-levels" to wither on the vine, especially as the main point of Advanced GNVQs is precisely that they aren't A-levels at all. Instead I would introduce the nickname of "V-levels", which suggests something different but of comparable quality.

Intermediate and Foundation GNVQs are more tricky, but "F-levels" and "I- levels" would in my view be an improvement both in terms of differentiation and accessibility. And the Part 1 GNVQ? I think the only hope is to launch a competition among all pilot group students to come up with a better and more attractive name. They probably have a lot more imagination on the subject than professional educationists or civil servants.

And while we're at it, what are we going to call Whitehall's latest creation? It can't have escaped notice the Department of Employment and Education shortens - with only a little licence - to DEMENTED.

David Vigar has worked for the last year as media officer for the Business and Technology Education Council. He now works for the Quentin Bell organisation. This is a personal view.

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