Independent Schools: Newcomers play for A-level field: Students and teachers say that rigorous vocational courses are giving academic counterparts a run for their money

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DONALD McEWAN, head teacher of St Edmund's College, Ware, Hertfordshire, has become an unashamed public relations man for the vocational A-level. So convinced is he of their worth that he has equipped himself with new skills and started to teach one himself in business.

St Edmund's, which also offers art and design and will introduce a science course next year, is one of only three schools in the independent sector to make new vocational A-levels available to sixth-formers. Determined to spread the word, Mr McEwan has teamed up with the Hertfordshire Training and Enterprise Council to stage a one-day conference on the topic for independent schools in the county early next year. He has also written to the Headmaster's Conference, which includes most public schools, suggesting a national conference on the same theme in March.

In the summer, John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, helped give vocational qualifications a boost by rebranding the cumbersomely named 'GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification) Level Three' as the Vocational A-level. The future of post-16 education was a key subject at the Headmaster's Conference last month but there was no stampede of head teachers to the rostrum to champion the relaunched qualification. Robin Wilson, the conference chairman and head teacher of Trinity School, Croydon, told the conference that A-levels were wasteful and that they would soon be 'past their sell-by date'. They were, he said, too narrowing and should be replaced by a more 'user-friendly' exam.

But Mr Wilson does not believe vocational A-levels will be widely adopted in the independent sector. 'There is certainly a need for change. But I don't think that two massive alternative systems - A-levels and GNVQs - are the way to go about it,' he said.

'There is more flexibility coming,' he added, 'and I don't think we like the idea that if you are doing A-levels you are a different kind of animal than if you are doing GNVQs.'

Though public schools have been slow on the uptake, those who began taking courses leading to GNVQs in September are pioneers in the Government's drive to bring parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications. After a year of pilot courses in state schools and colleges, students and teachers have reported that they are more demanding than GCSE and A-level courses. Research, testing, course work and assignments characterise the vocational route.

The vocational A-level is said to be equivalent to at least two A-level passes, though sceptics are still to be convinced. The courses are arranged in study modules. At A-level, students taking GNVQs have to sit eight-hour long tests during their two-year course.

At A-level, it not possible to mix and match the vocational and traditional routes in the same subject: guidelines prevent such eclecticism. Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmaster's Conference, says many schools are hoping the Secretary of State will show some flexibility, by accepting the notion of interchangeability between the two. 'We believe that we ought to be looking increasingly to make modular courses for A-levels available, so that at least it opens up the possibility of pupils being able to combine A-level modules with some GNVQ modules.'

He points out that 10 per cent of young people entering higher education do so after studying for vocational qualifications. 'If vocational A-levels become a recognised route to higher education, I think more independent schools will participate.' Meanwhile, Mr Anthony has accepted an invitation to the Hertfordshire conference, and greeted the plan for a national conference with 'some enthusiasm'.

So what motivated the handful of independent schools who have embraced vocational A-levels to do so? Michael Crosby, headmaster of Ashville College in Yorkshire, wanted to offer an alternative to pupils who were keen to carry on studying in the sixth form and beyond, but did not want to take conventional A-levels. 'We thought there was a group of people here who would benefit from what the courses have to offer. If they do well, they will be able to go on to higher education.' The school offers a vocational A-level in business, and has linked up with nearby Harrogate Ladies College to provide joint classes.

Christopher Harvey, head teacher of Millfield school in Somerset, has 165 teachers on his staff and offers 30 convential A-levels. He is keen to give vocational A-levels a try and will do so next year with a business course.' We have always been able to identify pupils for whom A-levels are not appropriate. But I do not think GNVQs in the sixth form should be seen as something you opt for if A-levels are beyond your reach. The course is very entrepreneurial and very enterprising and pupils of all abilities could benefit from it.'

He believes the principles underpinning the school's philosophy will be well served by offering GNVQs: 'Every child has a talent and it is up to the school to discover what it is and provide an appropriate framework for that talent to flourish.'

Mr McEwan, at St Edmund's College, is keen to stress that very bright pupils as well as those who are not so academically able will find much to stimulate and challenge them in vocational A-levels.

He has kept parents closely informed of developments, sending out the syllabus for both the traditional A-level and for the GNVQ.

'When parents read what the vocational A-level offers, they realise that students who take that route are not being sold short.'

He said the business course he teaches is 'academically rigorous and very challenging'. Course design enables pupils to reach a high standard - 'probably higher than they would have done following the traditional A-level route.'

Putting vocational A-levels on the curriculum will not be a cheap option for independent schools in general, as their introduction will often require new equipment and specialist teaching skills. Some head teachers who got their fingers burned when they rushed into curriculum development now wish they had bided their time and may be more cautious in their approach to the vocational A-levels.

But for this reason it is probably unwise to assume that the low initial take-up of GNVQs in the independent sector means independent schools are entirely resistant to the idea. And if Mr McEwan has anything to do with it, the take-up could snowball come next September.

(Photograph omitted)