Vocational A-levels marked `erratically'

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Vocational A-levels are often time-consuming and unreliable, and many teachers lack the skills and confidence to teach them properly, according to an Ofsted report due out today.

The latest criticism of General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs), introduced in 1991, will fuel fears that Sir Ron Dearing's planned reforms of 16 to 19-year-olds' education will have to be delayed.

Ofsted, the national schools inspection body, found that students' work was often marked inconsistently. Right-wingers have argued for years that the exams, which are both set and marked by teachers, are bound to lead to problems.

Although some improvements have been made since ministers announced plans to reform GNVQs two years ago, the report says marking is still inconsistent and that much of the teachers' training is irrelevant.

Inspectors who visited more than 60 sixth forms between autumn 1995 and spring 1996 found that teachers' marking of students' work was often erratic. Assessment, in which students compile portfolios of "evidence" of their skills under the teachers' guidance, was burdensome and unreliable, they said. Teachers frequently had to mark the same piece of work several times.

After marking, work is checked by a second teacher in the same school. External examiners visit about once a term, though this varies, to look at a sample of work. The inspectors found that many of the teachers who ran courses - including health and social care, leisure and tourism and manufacturing - lacked confidence in teaching compulsory language and numeracy.

Their training often focused on specific vocational areas rather than on the broader ones covered by GNVQs and was often largely irrelevant to their needs.

Sir Ron's report aimed to bring GNVQs and A levels closer together so that vocational qualifications achieved a higher status. A GNVQ is meant to be equivalent to two A-levels but many parents still prefer their children to take academic qualifications. Ministers may feel that Sir Ron's aims will be difficult to meet while a question mark hangs over standards in GNVQs.

John Hillier, chief executive of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, said areas of weakness had already been identified and pounds 10m was being spent on addressing them. A report to be published in September would show that up to 80 per cent of teachers were able to judge evidence effectively and three-quarters of assessment work was satisfactory or better, he said.