Queuing up for GNVQs

Students are eagerly signing up for the new vocational qualifications, but how do they fare at university? Maureen O'Connor reports
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"My impression is that I'm ahead of the university in computer applications," says John Cook, a student of business information technology at the University of Teesside. "Their software and some of the machines are archaic."

Mr Cook is a mature student who gained his place on a Higher National Diploma course after taking National Vocational Qualifications in information technology. His qualifications, he says, were a reasonable preparation for his new course, though they were more focused on applications than theory. "On the theory side I am starting from scratch," he admits. Even so, he expects to move on to a degree course if his HND results are as good as expected.

Mr Cook is one step ahead of school-leavers who began to move into higher education armed with vocationally orientated General National Vocational Qualifications last year. GNVQs are based in schools and colleges; NVQs are based in the workplace. All students studying the new courses have been told, like Mr Cook, that the new qualifications will be as good a preparation for degree level work as traditional A-levels. But are they?

There is no doubt that young people themselves welcome the new option for 16-year-olds. More than 7,000 have signed up for the science GNVQ this year, even though last year's pilot for only 900 students revealed some serious teething problems, particularly over recording and testing progress.

By next autumn almost 250,000 16- to 18-year-olds will have opted for the 11 GNVQ subjects, far in excess of government predictions. Some recruits are young people who would have taken vocational BTEC qualifications previously, but a considerable proportion have chosen GNVQs in preference to A-levels.

But although 85 per cent of GNVQ students who applied for higher education places through UCAS were offered places, many will find lingering doubts among those who teach them.

Some university teachers remain to be convinced that the practical GNVQ approach is an adequate preparation for degree-level work. A row at the new year conference of the Association for Science Education brought academic scepticism about GNVQs to a head. One admissions tutor dismissed the new qualifications as "second rate", and criticised UCAS for attempting to guarantee that applicants offering them would at least be interviewed by the universities.

Critics doubted whether the general science GNVQ was an adequate preparation for a single honours science degree, or whether there was sufficient mathematics content to allow students to study engineering at degree level.

But is was not just academics at the former polytechnics like Teesside who sprang to the defence of GNVQs. Dr Frank Burnet, master of Rutherford College at Kent University, welcomed the new approach.

"If we are serious about expanding higher education then we have to be serious about GNVQs," he said. "The sorts of practical and problem-solving skills GNVQ students are supposed to acquire are precisely the sorts of skills higher education students need. The courses may not be perfect yet but they are moving in the right direction."

At Teesside, John Cook's tutor, Richard Eagles, made the same point. "On a course like this we have always taken in students with a great range of abilities and experience. For an HND course the GNVQ approach is actually preferable because it is practical and vocational."

A-level students, Mr Eagles says, have a more academic bias and have to gain the practical skills needed on many vocational courses from scratch. GNVQ students may lack some theoretical background, but are good at applications. Whether they succeed in higher education, he thinks, has a lot to do with the attitude of the institution they go to.

"We are used to starting with people from a basic level because we have always taken people with very limited qualifications but plenty of motivation. If they have that, they are going to get through."

It is a point echoed by Dr Burnet, who is concerned that the A-level system is simply not producing enough prospective students with science qualifications. "We have got to be more flexible," he says. "Many universities now offer a preliminary course that gets people up to speed in science in a year. I do not understand why they are complaining about students coming in after two or three years of science beyond 16."

Universities, Dr Burnet says, can no longer sit and wait for students to come to them with paper qualifications. If they are to fill places they will have to get involved in building different routes into higher education.

"GNVQs give us a chance to get involved with schools and colleges locally to make sure they prepare people well for the next stage."