Sixth-formers in Wigan studying for vocational qualifications are proving they have got what it takes to compete for a university place.
In a pioneering scheme, a group of 22 business studies students from four schools and sixth-form colleges undertook short research projects at Liverpool University as part of their General National Vocational Qualifications courses.
The students were given free use of libraries and other university resources during the three-day project. They presented their findings to an audience of academics, teachers and schoolfriends in the prestigious setting of the university's Senate Room. The GNVQ at University scheme, piloted last autumn, was set up by the Liverpool Comino Centre, an educational charity in partnership with the university. It was funded by Wigan's Education Business Partnership - a combination of Metrotec, the local training and enterprise council, and Wigan education authority.
It has won the approval of Philip Love, Liverpool's vice-chancellor, and an expanded scheme will be offered in September for students studying a wider range of GNVQs.
Rita Marsh, director of the Comino Centre, which is dedicated to empowering learners throughout their lives, said GNVQ at University had achieved its three key objectives: to give advanced level vocational students a taste of university life while strengthening their GNVQ portfolios; to allow university lecturers to see the value of GNVQ students; and to improve links between schools and sixth-form colleges and higher education.
"The purpose was to empower these young people to achieve more than they might otherwise and to open their eyes to the opportunities available," said Geoff Birkett, acting chief executive of Wigan EBP. "It really is a priority to ensure that the advanced GNVQ is increasingly seen as a viable alternative to A-level as an entry route to university" Dominic Walker, 18, a pupil at Winstanley sixth-form college, who is studying for two A-levels in addition to his advanced GNVQ in business studies, worked with Kate MacRae, 19, on a fully-costed plan for advertising and marketing a play produced by the university English department. Dominic found the GNVQ emphasis on practical skills came into its own in the Senate Room. "We learned to think on our feet. Our presentation went very well - we displayed posters and used bullet points to deliver our findings."
Heather Jolley, 17, from Deanery sixth-form college, who is planning to go into management training rather than to university, recommended the scheme as a confidence-booster: "We were left alone to get on with our research, which gave us confidence."
That confidence was the single most noticeable characteristic of the students, according to university staff with whom they had contact, but questions remained about the equivalence of advanced GNVQs with A-levels.
Cliff Jones, director of the education faculty's professional development unit, where a group of the GNVQ students drew up proposals for more effective marketing, said they were keen and highly articulate and had excellent research skills. If admission to university were based purely on interview, it would be hard to fault them, he said.
However, he added, "The levels claimed for GNVQs are based upon assertion more than anything else. I'm worried that the Government will square the circle by asserting their equivalence. We really need to know what skills, understanding, knowledge and experience are being gained and in what context they are being evidenced."
Ian Pickering, head of the university's admissions service, said there were serious doubts about the ability of GNVQs to provide students with sufficient basic knowledge to attempt most degree courses.
"There are very few degree courses you can get on without a knowledge base of that area. One of the major feelings about GNVQ at present is that they do not deliver sufficient knowledge at a certain level."
GNVQ students applying for undergraduate places at Liverpool would need an A-level in their subject area in order to be considered, he said.
The best way forward would be for universities to work with schools and colleges to provide the necessary knowledge levels, Dr Pickering said. Regional validation by universities could then be accepted nationally. Better basics combined with the advantages of GNVQ independent study skills would deliver motivated and skilled students, he added.
But these doubts have not deterred Wigan's students. Some have already been offered university places and others are keen to use their GNVQ at University experience to enhance their CVs.
Janet Strivens, an education lecturer on secondment to the university's enterprise unit - an initiative designed to improve the work skills of graduates, backed by the Employment Department - said the different value offered by GNVQ students should not be ignored by university admissions tutors and the next scheme would be more closely linked to undergraduate courses offered by Liverpool.