So what's a GNVQ worth?

The attempt to create a new, practical route through 16-19 education is running into unexpected difficulties, as young people avoid the science and maths courses.
It is not often that thousands of young people gain a qualification, only to have the bottom knocked out of its credibility even before the ink on the certificate is dry. Yet this seems to be what is about to happen to the General Certificate of Vocational Education (GNVQ), which was intended to offer a shiny new route through 14-to-19 education for those whose interests were vocational and practical.

GNVQs were proposed in 1991 at three levels - foundation, intermediate and advanced - which were to be the equivalent of lower-grade GCSEs, A to C GCSEs, and two A-levels, respectively. But the approach was to be more practical, assessment more continuous; and there would be links to workplace-based NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) through which skilled workers are now trained.

Three experienced vocational exam bodies were brought together in a joint council to run the new awards, and 15 subjects were to be offered. The intermediate award was designed so that successful candidates could go on to higher education in just the same way as A-level candidates do.

The route has proved popular with young people. Last year almost 82,000 gained GNVQ qualifications, just over 6,000 of them at foundation level, 44,000 at intermediate level and 31,000 at advanced level. This was almost double the number of the year before. Figures for this year are not yet available.

But although there are 15 subjects on offer, three-quarters of young people taking the new qualification are concentrated in just four subjects: business, health and social care, art and design, and leisure and tourism. The scientific and technical subjects that were supposed to be strengthened by the new system have so far come nowhere in the fierce competition in schools and colleges for young people's favours.

It is statistics like this that are now putting the whole future of the new system at risk. Professor Alison Wolf, of the London Institute of Education, whose first full study of GNVQs was published earlier this month, has called for wholesale reform. She concluded that the system offered teenagers few new options, and was doing nothing to redress the shortage of young people with scientific and technical knowledge.

In a devastating report, she suggested that GNVQs had failed to match the status of A-levels, and did not provide a genuine route into jobs for school-leavers. Nor was she convinced that the qualifications were attracting more young people down the vocational route overall. Although they had been endorsed as one of the three key pathways for young people in Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-to-19 education, many schools and young people had remained loyal to long- standing qualifications such as the BTEC National Diplomas, some of which cover similar areas of study.

Almost three times as many young people gained BTEC National Certificates and Diplomas in 1996, as gained advanced GNVQs. The most popular areas of study reflect a similar devotion to potential careers in business and the service industries, such as health and tourism. Far from simplifying the qualifications jungle, GNVQs seem simply to have added to it without shifting the direction of young people's interests at all. Far from solving the problems inherent in A-levels, where students have been drifting away from science for years, the new so-called vocational A-levels seem merely to have replicated them.

The only fear about the new courses which does not seem to have been fulfilled is that the universities would not regard them as an adequate preparation for a degree course. An advanced GNVQ is intended to be the equivalent of two A-levels, and in some schools and colleges students are taking the two qualifications alongside each other.

The Joint Council's statistics show that around three- quarters of students completing an advanced course apply to university, and of those about two-thirds are successful. Not that GNVQs are being bandied about at Oxbridge just yet. The nature of the qualification means that most applicants apply for vocational degree courses, which are concentrated mainly in the new universities, the former polytechnics.

Similarly after Intermediate Level, 75 per cent of students decide to remain in education, going on to Advanced GNVQs or to A-levels. If the GNVQs were intended to keep young people in education, they seem to have succeeded. If they were intended to prepare them for jobs - as the vocational content suggests - then they have not, because few with the new qualifications are choosing to look for work. And increasingly people are asking just how many consecutive years of vocationally-oriented education a young person needs.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Brunel University, a trenchant critic of vocational education in this country, reacts strongly to the Wolf report. He has already suggested that it is time to think again about 16-to-19 education, in spite of the newness of Sir Ron Dearing's recommendations.

GNVQs, he suggests, are fundamentally flawed because they were based on the workplace training for NVQs - which themselves are not doing too well - and they delineated subject areas such as leisure and tourism, or manufacturing, which were themselves problematic. As a result they are frequently incoherent, often do not lead anywhere, and are too narrow to offer a good education.

Leisure and tourism, for instance, lumps together work in travel agencies and in leisure centres - a preparation for life as a sort of Gordon Brittas with wings. And what does a qualification in "manufacturing" qualify you to manufacture: aeroplanes, computers or cup cakes?

Employers claim that they were not consulted about these qualifications, and in any case the majority of those taking the advanced level GNVQs seem to have their sights set on higher education just as firmly as those taking the more prestigious A-levels, often in the same institutions, so job preparation during the course is largely redundant.

Professor Smithers is now calling on the Government to look again at 16-to-19 education. There is a strong case, he says, for unifying the GNVQ and A-level systems, with applied subjects running alongside the more academic in a way that will guarantee equal status.

More radically, moving from the usual three-subject course to five subjects would guarantee that many more young people take a combination of subjects across the vocational/academic dividen