GNVQs struggle against A-levels

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Exam officials and ministers yesterday welcomed the growing popularity of vocational qualifications, introduced as an alternative to GCSE and A-level, but academics said they were failing to compete with A-levels.

More than 90,000 students achieved full General National Vocational Qualifications this year, an increase of more than 10 per cent on last year. For the advanced GNVQ, the proportion achieving the equivalent of at least one A-level was almost 70 per cent.

Kim Howells, the education and employment minister, said the Government was committed to strengthening vocational qualifications. "GNVQs continue to gain in popularity with some 240,000 students having achieved full GNVQ awards in the five years since the qualification was launched. They are a motivating and rewarding option for more and more young people," he said.

And Dr Christina Townsend, chair of the Joint Council of National Vocational Awarding Bodies said: "GNVQs are now a popular route into employment and increasing numbers are using them as a vehicle into higher education."

But Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University said that advanced GNVQs were struggling to establish themselves in competition with A-level.There was an increase in completions of only 6,000 this year compared to 1996, whereas in English A-level alone there were 7,000 more passes.

In business studies, he said, a subject in which there was also an A- level, the growth in GNVQ completions was far lower than in areas such as health and social care and leisure and tourism, where there was no equivalent A-level and GNVQs fared much better.The proportion of students who successfully completed a full advanced GNVQ, the equivalent of two A-levels, fell slightly this year to just under half. Exam board officials said that it is too soon to say why the completion rate for advanced GNVQs was down. One possibility may be changes in the course.

Professor Smithers said: "GNVQs do not seem to be establishing themselves as the equivalent of A-level in the way that we hoped. They are seen as qualifications for people who cannot cope with A-level. We need to look again at 16-19 education and at the suggestion, for instance, that A-level and GNVQ business studies should come together as an applied A-level."

The completion rate for all GNVQs is expected to improve to more than 80 per cent as more students finish their courses. The A-level completion rate is about 85 per cent.Unlike A-level and GCSE, there is no final exam for GNVQs. Instead, students' work is assessed by a series of pieces of coursework and tests which may take longer than two years to finish.

This year, the proportion of advanced GNVQ students who received offers of university places was 94 per cent, up 2 per cent on last year. Last year 54 per cent of those with advanced GNVQs went to university.