Education Quandary

'My son is thinking about doing a mixture of vocational and academic A-levels, but will this harm his chance of a university place?'
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Hilary's advice

Hilary's advice

First of all, let's be clear what we're talking about. Vocational A-levels - or two-year Advanced Vocational Certificates in Education (AVCEs) - have been brought in to replace the previous vocational qualifications, known as GNVQs, but are now being rewritten so that from next year they will no longer be known as VCEs, but as GCEs.

Oh, forget it. Let's talk English. Today's post-16 students can, if they wish, take some subjects at A-level that cover practical, work-related areas, and which are assessed more on coursework than exams. Students can, in theory, pick from 14 of these subjects, which include art and design, business, engineering, and health- and social care. The subjects are graded like A-levels, and are intended to have equivalent status.

But this may well be based more on hope than experience. The truth is that, as things stand, most students who take vocational A-levels do so because they already know what they want to do, and plan to follow a vocational-style path towards it. If that is your son's plan, then fine, let him go ahead. Students with a mixture of academic and vocational A-levels seem to do pretty well at getting onto their chosen courses: universities can easily see the relevance of, say, studying health- and social care if you plan to be a physiotherapist.

But it is a very different matter when it comes to more academic courses - or more academic universities. "What's a vocational A-level?" asked one, bluntly. Others make it clear that top traditional A-level grades are still what matter most to them.

Also, the qualifications themselves are a bit of a mess; many teachers are looking for alternatives. "We are shifting back to BTEC National qualifications," says Jane Machell, principal of Alton College, a beacon sixth-form college in Hampshire. "They are still good currency, and are historically of good standing."

Of course, all this will change again when the Tomlinson shake-up of 14 to 19 education comes about in the not-too-distant future - so gird your loins for more incomprehensible acronyms.

Readers' advice

I have been studying vocational A-levels in ICT and business alongside English A-level. The vocational A-levels are just as good as ordinary ones, and much more enjoyable. I am hoping to do business studies at university and I think I will be very well qualified for this. My careers teacher told me he saw no problem with it, and that he thought that universities would think it was fine.
Doug Landerton, by e-mail

Steer clear of vocational A-levels. They were rushed in as part of the Curriculum 2000 reforms, but the assessment wasn't properly worked out, and neither were the equivalencies with existing qualifications. They are meant to be the equivalent of AS- and A-levels, but all the modules for a vocational A-level are of the same standard, whereas an AS student is judged much less rigorously. This is particularly hard for all the many less-academic pupils who want to take vocational subjects. As usual, in a country that seems to get embarrassed at the very word vocational, we have messed things in this area up completely.
Patrick Newton, Liverpool

I wish I could have studied vocational subjects. I did history, English and politics, and then history at university, but after that I went into the hotel business, and all my academic work was irrelevant. Young people who come to us on work experience are studying things like tourism and leisure, IT and business, and are much more clued up than I was at their age. Unless your son wants to do something specifically academic, let him find out about the real world!
May Brookings, Devon

Next week's quandary

Our FE college has just been inspected, and we teachers have all been told to make improvements. But when will anyone tell our students the same thing? Half of them couldn't care less about their studies, but we are supposed to work harder and harder to interest them and make them behave. Haven't we got it all wrong? Shouldn't we be making it clearer that they have obligations, too?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 7 June, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser