The Vocational Qualification Gap

This September sees the introduction in the UK of a new qualification in science for the over-16 age group. The General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) ate an attempt to provide a bridge between the current academic and vocational curriculum frameworks by providing general certification in a way that keeps the door open to direct employment. A- and AS-levels or the more specific and well established National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). The new qualifications were first proposed for introduction in England and Wales in the May 1991 Government White Paper Education and Training for the 21st Century. (The Scottish education system has a different structure.)

The first phase of introduction of GNVQs is currently under way in five programme areas: manufacturing, art and design, business, health and social care, and leisure and tourism. From September, three more will be offered, in science, construction and hospitality/catering.

The GNVQs will provide qualifications at a number of “levels”, from level 1 ( a pre-GCSE foundation level) to level 5 (the “professional” level equivalent to completion of a first degree). The first phase of introduction is at levels 2 and 3. GNVQ level 2 is equivalent to at least four GCSEs at grade C or above (i.e. equivalent to four O-level passes), whilst GNVQ level 3 is equivalent to two A-levels. Such equivalence mapping, though, is dangerous, particularly at level 3, as it is essential that this new qualification is not seen to be too aligned to A-levels.

Indeed, I believe that whilst the new qualifications have considerable potential for increasing the UK’s technical workforce, it is vital that they are clearly different from existing qualifications and that they are marketed effectively.

Complete certification at GNVQ level 2 is obtained when the student gains six mandatory units in the chosen vocational area, and three core skills, namely communications, application of number (i.e. numeracy-related skills) and information technology. These core skills are integrated into the units. Lessons already learnt from the first phase of introduction may mean a change to four mandatory units, two optional units and the three core skills.

For GNVQ level 3 – which will gain entry into higher education – complete certification is obtained when the student gains eight mandatory units in the chosen vocational area, four optional units in the same area and the three core skills at this level (which are integrated into the twelve units).

For both these levels, there is no time limit attached to the completion of the award and a student may be accredited with partial success by means of a record of achievement for one or more units. Grades are awarded as pass, merit or distinction, and for both levels there ate opportunities for students to pursue additional units which enhance and extend the award.

GNVQs, if developed and exploited to their full potential will, I believe, offer many exciting possibilities to open up access and increase participation post-16. This is particularly true for science, which struggles to attract students both for A-levels and for science-specific vocational awards such as BTEC (the national awards of the Business Technology Education Council). But the framework must be very different from the existing academic and vocational frameworks represented respectively by A- and AS-levels and the BTEC and CGLI (City and Guilds London Institute) awards. Young people have got to see a true alternative. If GNVQs are marketed effectively, then students will embark on them; this might well include students who up to now were forced to take A-levels or other vocational qualifications with the resulting high levels of wastage and failure. It could also bring in people who have not, until now, engaged in post-16 education.

For science, it is especially important to make the GNVQ distinctive and attractive and not a reflection of the current A-level provision. The GNVQ framework must articulate and carry forward via a thematic approach the achievements of the balanced science studies now being introduced to 5— 16-year-olds under the national curriculum. It must not regress and offer separate sciences by way of the units, whether they be mandatory or optional. The UK desperately needs more and better qualified people to become technicians, to support graduates and researchers in science. If the units are constructed in the correct way, then there are real opportunities for increasing both the potential technician workforce and the number of students entering science higher education.

The mandatory units must provide a firm foundation of knowledge and skill with a broad and balanced provision among the physical, biological and life sciences. The optional and additional units could offer opportunities to enhance this breadth and balance, and also begin to provide depth and specialisation for students who have a more focused intention for their future careers (either immediately into the world of work or on to higher education). However, it is important that the depth within the optional units is designed and delivered in such a way as to maintain the integrity of the award. The optional units could, for example, explore depth in contexts such as sports science and health studies, rather than the more traditional approaches used in the separate sciences.

It is essential that parents, young people, employers and schools, all fully appreciate the value of the qualification. Equally important is that it gains support immediately from all the associations and institutions that represent science. The groups currently writing the unit specifications for GNVQ science include representatives from the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Biology and the Association for Science Education, as well as employers. The specifications are due next month, and it is to be hoped that the authors will create units which look to the future and produce an attractive programme of study.

It is also essential that the separate-science brigade accept this approach, which in no way weakens the separate-science provision at A-level; the government has already indicated that A-levels will be retained and will not be significandy reformed. GNVQs offer, for the first time, a real opportunity to provide a valuable alternative to A-level science provision and bring in people who could progress into careers which are either science-specific or science-related. I look to the Institute of Physics to take a lead and be encouraging, in all ways possible, to this very exciting development.

Dick Evans is principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education, UK and chair of the national advisory committee for GNVQ science.

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