Give Us a Chance

The Press should look at the facts behind the pilot General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) before judging them, says Richard Evans.

Yet again, the GNVQ awards are under the microscope. Almost daily the Press report in their usual sensationalizing fashion the growing pains of this important qualification with little attempt to provide a careful analysis of the background and context of the developments with the award. The importance of GNVQs surely merits a sensitive and well-informed analysis of the purpose of the qualifications by the tabloid and broadsheet Press; they owe it to the students, prospective students, parents and the employers.

The latest trigger for this mass Press hysteria was prompted by the retention and achievement figures released on students who had been involved with the pilot programmes of study at foundation, intermediate and advanced levels in: art and design, business, health and social care, leisure and tourism and manufacturing. Little mention was made of the fact that the awards were still in the pilot phase. The GNVQ awards seem to have been subjected to continual scrutiny during their short existence. Oh, that the same degree of scrutiny had been carried out on A levels, and a proper reasoned and rational set of comparisons carried out with a questionable qualification that has been around for over 40 years. A levels were designed for just 2 per cent of the population in the 1950s and with little reform are now expected to be appropriate for over 30 per cent of young people. They are now manifestly inappropriate to offer to a greatly increased student population which itself has become very diverse.

GNVQs are one of the most exciting, innovative and promising curriculum developments over the past few decades and are attempting to tackle some of the existing problems associated with earlier curriculum frameworks. There is real evidence that the awards are opening up access and increasing participation for students and offering a real alternative to the supposed gold standard of A level.

Practitioners fully accept the current problems and a great deal of constructive work is being undertaken by NCVQ and its various advisory committees, the awarding bodies and staff in the providing institutions to rectify these difficulties. These efforts are not helped by the sensational headlines in the tabloid and broadsheet Press with all the resultant uncertainties and confusion these cause in the minds of students, prospective students, their parents, employers, etc.

In addition, such Press coverage could reinforce the basic hostility towards vocational qualifications so prevalent in this country. Pilots, particularly in curriculum development and early implementation stages, take time to settle and for many of the initial problems to be recognized and removed. Crude statistics have been broadcast about very low retention and achievement rates and the headlines screamed out ‘high levels of drop out and failure’ yet after a more considered period of reflection and analysis, the results are relatively good, considering the newness of the award. They do, in fact, stand a reasonable comparison with A levels, both in terms of retention and achievement.

The processes associated with registration, learning and assessment for GNVQ are very different than for A levels. The contentious aspect of the current GNVQs are the ‘tests’. The pass rate of 70 per cent has been arbitrarily set, not for any real or valid educational reasons, but more to satisfy the whims of a few politicians, who spout on about so-called ‘standards’ and the need to benchmark with A levels. Many students present excellent portfolios of evidence on all other aspects of their programme of study and yet fail the ‘tests’, and as a result are not deemed successful. These issues are being addressed.

When one analyses why students dropped out, for example, from the advanced GNVQ, a whole series of reasons are highlighted, some of which are understandable and acceptable, whilst others definitely need attention. Many students cannot continue and leave because of financial barriers and domestic difficulties and in the majority of cases this has nothing to do with their ability, the quality of the provision or their commitment to their studies. For example, 20 per cent of the students obtained jobs, and at this time of few job opportunities, surely this is a success. Obviously there needs to be consideration about the value of entry into employment particularly for the younger person at this time.

Forty-three per cent of the students changed to another programme of study and this is an issue that needs serious consideration by the providing institutions. Such a high level of transfer raises a whole series of questions about the effectiveness of the initial guidance at entry provided by the institutions. Did the prospective students experience and receive neutral and objective guidance at the entry stage to the GNVQ? Twenty-six per cent of those who dropped out indicated that they were not on the right course. Again this raises questions about the guidance processes within the institutions. Reasons given by the students that they were on the wrong course were; course was too hard (50 per cent), course was too easy (3 per cent) and that the subject was not appropriate (26 per cent). These factors need to be carefully considered, not only by the NCVQ, but most certainly by the providers.

It must be also realized that these are preliminary statistics and no firm or wild extrapolations and interpretations should be made. The student populations during the pilots were relatively small as, indeed, were the number of the programmes of study.

Before information is released into the public domain in future it must be subjected to more careful analysis and, when published, accompanied by commentaries placing the awards in the correct contexts and demonstrating a more thorough understanding of the contribution they are making.

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