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A working definition

What is vocational science education? Ken Gadd discusses its status in relation to general qualifications.

What is "vocational science" and, perhaps more difficult to answer, what is "vocational science education"? All science qualifications are vocational in that they are usually prerequisites to employment as scientists. However, the rationale for the content of qualifications designated vocational and general vocational is unclear. Unfortunately, the word "vocational" is itself imprecise. So when we try to differentiate between vocational and general vocational we are heading for real trouble. To start, let us try to answer the question: "What are the key components of scientists' jobs?" Scientists:

* use scientific understanding and skills to generate new knowledge, provide information, improve techniques and performance, develop and deliver a product, and solve problems * communicate findings and expertise, benefits and implications from scientific work * manage resources (human, physical, technological, financial and information).

It would seem reasonable for vocational and general vocational qualifications in science to be reflected in these three aspects. GCSE and GCE specifications focus mainly, if not exclusively, on the first. Science-based national vocational qualifications (NVQs) cover all three. They are about job-specific knowledge and skills demonstrated in the workplace.

Vocational training prepares people for these qualifications through, for example, training schemes such as Foundation and Advanced Modern Apprenticeships. When intermediate and advanced GNVQs (general vocational qualifications) were introduced to provide vocational alternatives to GCE ASA-level and GCSE they were based on "what scientists do". Broadly, scientists analyse or characterise things, make or obtain things, monitor and control change. Advanced GNVQs metamorphosed into AVCEs (Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education). In 2002 VGCSE (vocational GCSE) will be introduced (foundation and intermediate GNVQs will continue to run). However, the underlying theme remains.

But is there a need for vocational alternatives to GCSE and GCE ASA-level in science? Sadly, many saw advanced GNVQ as something students might do if they were "not good enough" for A-level. Reasons for directing students to these qualifications had little to do with its vocational nature. Now the so-called weaker students should be catered for by the new ASA-level structure. Students may embark on a GCE and stop at the AS-level.

The assessment of what a student understands and can do certainly differentiates AVCE and GCE. In AVCE, the assessment is about 66 per cent internal (coursework) and 33 per cent external (tests). In GCE, geneally 80 per cent of assessment is by external examination and 20 per cent by internally marked coursework.

This difference drives different styles of learning. Vocational students often need to take greater control of their work in order to show their managerial skills. Vocational courses involve more active learning because, among other things, of the emphasis on finding information, tackling open-ended problems and working in teams. These approaches are not precluded from GCE A-levels, but the style of examination leads to preparing students in how to answer closed familiar problems.

The assessment model is important. Yet three of the six compulsory units for AVCE Science are externally assessed, using tests that are very similar to GCE ASA-level unit tests. This may lead to teaching styles similar to GCE ASA-level and work against the vocational flavour of the course. In all other AVCEs only two of the compulsory units are externally assessed.

However, assessment methods alone are not sufficient to differentiate between a general qualification and a general vocational one. There must be more fundamental differences in terms of content and emphasis - for example, looking at the broad purpose of scientists' work and using work-related contexts for developing understanding and skills.

Two compulsory units for AVCE science are Investigating Science at Work and Carrying out Scientific Investigations; the latter was based on NVQ units. These give it a vocational flavour, but the other four mandatory units are more about the applications of science than what scientists do.

So what is the need for general vocational qualifications in science? Perhaps the answer is that all students studying science should experience the type of learning and assessment associated with both GCE AAS and AVCE. One advantage is that each qualification would not attempt to be "all things to all people". The AAS units could focus on underpinning ideas and concepts (is the assessment of practical skills in current specifications really meaningful?), while AVCE units could focus on the work of scientists and on developing practical, communication and managerial skills. Synoptic assessment would then have a real meaning - the bringing together of the skills and understanding to tackle open-ended complex problems.

But the bottom line is a return to the old parity of esteem debate. We should value the skills associated with vocational courses as much as we value the education derived through general qualifications.

Dr Ken Gadd is a consultant in science education with 4SCIENCE and works with professional, regulatory and awarding bodies. He is working on schemes of work for the new vocational qualifications

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