Students with a vocational 'A' make the grade

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The Independent Online
Students with vocational A-levels are finding it easier to get into university than those with the traditional, academic qualifications, ministers are to announce this week.

More than nine out of 10 students applying to higher-education courses with General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) this year have won a place, Gillian Shephard will disclose on Wednesday. Less than three- quarters of A-level students are successful.

The numbers going to university with vocational A-levels, introduced in 1992, are likely to double this year, new figures show. While 10,000 applied last year and 89 per cent were successful, this year 20,000 have applied and 92 per cent are expected to be successful.

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) will also show that a greater proportion of young people are taking an advanced GNVQ, which is equivalent to two A-levels, alongside one traditional A-level.

However, there are still concerns about the quality of the GNVQ exams in business studies, health and social care, leisure and tourism, science and manufacturing. Of 75,000 students who registered for the courses in 1994, 55,000 have not applied for university places this year, suggesting that many have failed to complete their courses within two years.

Last year it was disclosed that almost two-thirds of the 42,000 students who started courses in 1992 and 1993 had not yet gained the full qualifications.

However, some critics of the exams now believe that the latest signs are optimistic. Alan Smithers, professor of public policy at Brunel University, said there now seemed to be a welcome increase in job-related degree courses.

English universities had always been good at teaching thinking skills, and Britain had produced Nobel prize-winners, novelists and poets as a result, he said.

But Britain had always been outshone by its economic rivals when it came to applied skills, and many British inventions had been commercially exploited abroad as a result.

"While we are very good at finding out things about the world we are not very good at applying that information and exploiting wealth. But we have recognised the problem and the will is there to change it," he said.

Nine out of 10 GNVQ students who go on to higher education go to new universities, but one old university in 10 is now prepared to consider taking them.

Vocational A-levels have been criticised for being time-consuming and unreliable, with many teachers lacking the skills and confidence to teach them properly.

Two years ago ministers announced plans to reform them, but earlier this year the schools inspection body, Ofsted, found that they were still often marked inconsistently and that much of teachers' training was irrelevant to them.

Right-wingers have argued for years that the exams, which are both set and marked by teachers, are bound to lead to problems.