The practically-based General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) will take two years to complete and is intended to bring order to the confusing range of diplomas and certificates on offer when students reach 16.
A GNVQ Level 3 is designed to be equivalent to two A-levels but Sir Bryan Nicholson, chairman of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, said that it will have to 'earn its reputation in the market-place' among employers and university admissions tutors. In an effort to give the GNVQ 'parity of esteem' with A- levels and to ensure that it is seen as a possible route into higher education, all 10,000 students in this year's pilot scheme have been guaranteed an interview at university or college if they apply.
Despite high-level backing from the Government, the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress, the 100 schools and colleges involved this year are not being given additional resources to set up and run the new courses. This will be the first time that the majority of students who do not take A-levels have had any coherent, mainstream set of qualifications to work towards. Ministers hope that soon an equal number will be doing GNVQs as A-levels and that the new courses will appeal to adults.
This year students can take GNVQs in five broad areas: art and design, business, health and social care, leisure and tourism, and manufacturing. A further 10 will be introduced next year.
Divided into 12 units (four of them optional), the GNVQ Level 3 programmes are to give students a broad foundation of knowledge and skills rather than prepare them for specific jobs like the existing National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), which are often done in the workplace. All candidates will take units in communication, numeracy and information technology.
For example, a student might do a GNVQ in manufacturing, keeping his or her options of higher education or employment open. They could then build on this in the workplace to obtain an NVQ in, say, knitwear or car-making. A student would also be able to take additional mathematics units during the two-year programme in order to prepare for an engineering course at university.
Sir Bryan said that the overwhelming majority of students doing these courses would succeed in gaining a GNVQ, although some might take more than two years to do so. (In contrast, A-levels have a failure rate of between one quarter and one third).
It was impossible to legislate to give the new qualification equal standing with A-level, Sir Bryan admitted, but there would be rigorous quality control by the council and the three organisations introducing the new qualification: City and Guilds, Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and British Technology Education Council (Btec).
'We are not trying to create a pale imitation of A-level, but if large numbers of young people start to enter higher education via this route and if employers are impressed by the quality of the people they see, then it will build parity of esteem,' Sir Bryan said.