Occupational hazards: The popularity of the new vocational qualifications obscures flaws that threaten their fundamental purpose, writes Elaine Williams

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The Independent Online
Vocational qualifications in Britain have long been seen as second best to the academic and foisted on those regarded as academic failures. But as many as 70,000 young people have signed up for John Patten's new 'vocational A-levels', or General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) - proof that there is huge demand for an alternative to conventional A-levels.

This take-up, only one year after the introduction of GNVQs, has surpassed all expectations. The Government has set a target of 50 per cent of young people achieving two A-levels or their equivalent by the year 2000, and GNVQs will have to play a major role in this. Adopting European practice, it has opted for the vocational route to improve staying-on rates and lead more students into either higher education or skilled employment.

The Government must be congratulated - in its intention at least. Our European neighbours show that practically based qualifications can improve the educational attainment of youngsters not suited to a narrow academic approach and their staying-on rates have long been vastly superior to ours. In 1990-91, only 29 per cent of young people obtained the equivalent of two A-levels in Britain, compared with 48 per cent in France and 68 per cent in Germany.

Five GNVQs were introduced last year: art and design; business; health and social care; leisure and tourism; and manufacturing. Three new courses were introduced in September: the built environment; hospitality and catering; and science. Distribution, engineering, information technology, land-based industries, management, and media and communication will be piloted from next September. Advanced GNVQs are equivalent to two A-levels, but there are also intermediate GNVQs, equivalent to four to five GCSEs at grades A to C, and foundation GNVQs, yet to be introduced.

A multi-million pound campaign has been launched to promote these qualifications and the Government estimates that by 1996 one in four people aged 16 should be taking GNVQ courses. Despite calls from many critics for A-levels to be abolished, Mr Patten remains wedded to them as the academic 'gold standard' and argues that breadth must come through the GNVQ route.

Undoubtedly students appear to be voting with their feet over GNVQS. But their popularity, as well as the Government's rhetoric, obscures flaws in the new qualifications so fundamental that they threaten the very thing they have set out to achieve - the raising of educational attainment through vocational means.

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) highlighted some of these flaws in its critical appraisal of the first year of GNVQs in schools. Teachers, it said, were grappling with documents that included too much technical language; imprecise assessment and grading criteria; the late arrival of information about course requirements; the late arrival of external tests which often varied too much in style and level of difficulty; lack of guidance on course-work assessment and lack of understanding of internal assessment procedures required by the awarding bodies; lack of guidance on the delivery of core skills; lack of adequate resources including textbooks and other supporting material. Even allowing for the mild language usually employed by Her Majesty's Inspectorate, it was a damning document.

All new qualifications are bound to have teething troubles, but the scale of these is worrying. The problem lies partly with the breakneck speed with which these qualifications have been pushed through - some courses, such as the built environment, have been put together and implemented in a matter of months - and partly with their underlying philosophy.

In 1991 Kenneth Clarke, then Secretary of State for Education, gave the job of devising GNVQs to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. The council believes that students should be assessed on what they can do, rather than what they know and understand. Students should have to prove themselves competent in all aspects of the qualification and display total mastery of it - thus avoiding what it sees as a fault in the A-level syllabus, of students being able to focus narrowly on parts of a subject.

This all sounds very fine. Many employers might agree that what school-leavers or graduates are able to do is more important than what they know. But the very nature of these qualifications based on 'outcomes' and 'competencies', rather than knowledge and the processes of learning, has led to them being defined in a language so tortuous - involving such notions as 'range statements' and 'evidence indicators' - that few teachers and college lecturers, not to mention pupils, can understand it.

In the course of research for a forthcoming report, I spoke to many teachers and lecturers who felt the obscurity of the language left them grappling in the dark with what they were supposed to be teaching or assessing. The report, 'All Our Futures: Britain's Education Revolution' (by Alan Smithers, head of Manchester University's centre for education and employment research, and to be featured shortly on Channel 4's Dispatches) aims to highlight fundamental concerns.

GNVQs require students to discover things for themselves. But in the absence of clear guidance on the qualification's knowledge base, and the lack of simply stated course requirements, many teachers have felt unable to offer students the support they need. Schoolteachers and college lecturers are free to choose activities within the framework but, given the language barriers, many are struggling to create a reasonable and recognisable programme of study to fulfil the criteria.

Because of difficulties in interpreting the nature of the knowledge required within the 'competencies', teachers have had difficulties preparing pupils for the external short-answer tests. Given the confusion over what was actually required of students, failure rates for some parts of the courses have been as high as 100 per cent in some schools.

In an attempt to remedy this, test specifications are available this year to schools and colleges in all subjects at all levels. But apart from this element of external assessment, GNVQs are largely awarded by teachers to their own students, so the problem of interpretation and standards remains. As one teacher said: 'I have written to the NCVQ on several occasions and asked them to set GNVQs out simply, in a language we can all understand. But I've got nowhere.'

Funding arrangements for schools and colleges mean they are under pressure to recruit as many students as possible, and they therefore have to make their GNVQ courses seem as attractive as they can. This pressure means that teachers and heads are reluctant to make their concerns known to the wider public.

Teachers and students are enthusiastic about GNVQs but there needs to be a serious review of the detail, which should support, not hinder, teachers in their task. The Business and Technician Education Council (BTEC) has said that new qualifications require a new language, but impenetrable jargon obscures confused aims. Greater quality and sensible support materials are desperately needed.

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