Education Opinion: As the Dearing proposals look at the future for A-levels, John Vale argues that GNVQs are much better

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The Independent Online
The top-quality educational experiences in sixth forms and colleges are no longer being offered by traditional A-levels. Students following A-levels have concentrated on substantial volumes of hard information, with very narrow specialist skills that were highly specific to those bodies of knowledge. To master accurately all the knowledge and skills in three areas was a difficult task, and so the people who could accomplish it were deemed suitable for the next step - that of achieving a degree.

The fact that there was never any demonstrated connection between how well one did at A-level and how good a degree was finally awarded was a fact that has always been politely ignored.

With the advent of the new General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs), we are seeing another myth creep into the system. This myth, put simply, is that GNVQs are a bit like A-levels, only "less academic", and a "bit more work-oriented". To say that GNVQs are some kind of low- power A-level is like saying that an aeroplane is a kind of light-weight steam engine. GNVQs are not low-power, small-mass A-levels, they are one of the best and most valuable processes to have hit secondary education this century.

The A-level consists of large blocks of factual knowledge, which candidates copy down in their own notebooks. Once candidates have written down all that they should, and perhaps gone through some kind of debate with the author, then their ability level is assessed by how much can be recalled on a specified day.

GNVQs do not differ from A-levels merely on the basis of subject matter studied (indeed some GNVQs, such as business and science, superficially share the same ground as the old A-levels.) There are two substantial differences.

First there is the processes by which the student acquires knowledge, and second there is the concern for all the extras that people should pick up when they are educated, what in GNVQ are called core skills.

The process of GNVQ never consists of students merely being given information. Hence, if GNVQ students are required to produce evidence relating to, say, a business financial plan then they may be given some factual information (or, more probably, sent off to research that information themselves). Then, however, they make the ideas real by going into the real world of business to investigate further, listening to those who have written business plans or who have to assess the quality of others' business plans. At the end of the day the candidate will be expected to produce a business plan as part of the requirement of the course. (In the last one I examined in a school, the candidate had asked the manager of her father's bank to comment on her plan before she submitted it - his laconic comment on the courtesy slip was that it was the best business plan he had seen for at least two years.)

Similarly, if a student is investigating computer-assisted design and manufacture, not only will they have to produce the formal technical and academic insights, they will also have to examine these processes in real work environments, and provide evidence of having used them.

Process is so central to GNVQ that merit or distinction grades are awarded only to candidates who demonstrate skills in areas such as planning, data seeking and handling, evaluating strengths and weaknesses in their own performance, as well as producing high-quality work. The A-level skill of just mastering what the teacher puts in front of you is not enough in the world of GNVQ.

The other innovation of GNVQ, the requirement that the student achieves specified objectives in core skills, sweeps up the issue of "is grammar and spelling important?", along with many others, with a resounding assertion that they are.

Any student who achieves a GNVQ must have achieved a minimum demonstrated set of objectives in numeracy, communication (written and spoken) and computer skills. The core skill requirements are put in as part and parcel of the course.

Hence, all GNVQ students will have made a presentation to different groups of people, will have word processed technical reports, will have hand-written letters, will have used a phone to take messages, and will have practised all the other basic skills that we hope students will have, but other than in GNVQ cannot demand. Universities and employers are just starting to realise that good GNVQ students are a much better bet than traditional A-level candidates. They are capable of managing their own time, researching topics, presenting ideas, handling information that is far superior to what has traditionally been the case with young people seeking employment or higher education. Let's hear no more nonsense about the Gold Standard of A-levels - they were fine as an echo of the Middle Ages, but in the age of compact discs we want people who can manage time, knowledge and ideas, not just learn and reproduce their tutors' notes and knowledge.

The writer is a quality assurance officer for a GNVQ examining body.