Scepticism remains over the relative value of GNVQ.
It has often been said that British education provides a first-class service to an elite but fails the masses. The advanced General National Vocational Qualification is an attempt to make good the failure. It offers pupils a vocational qualification which supposedly equals two A-levels, and which should (says the National Council for Vocational Qualifications) "provide an alternative route to work or higher education". A couple of years after its introduction the new qualification has reached a critical point. Enrolment has climbed sharply, taking the pilot schemes to over 100,000. All now depends on how employers and the universities will respond.
GNVQs differ substantially from A levels, both in style and content. The GNVQ is modular and composed of "units" which can be collected one at a time. It covers "vocational skills" such as IT and "core skills" such as numeracy. Marking is done largely by continuous internal assessment - although the Business & Technology Education Council sets external tests - and standards are maintained by "internal and external verifiers". That's what worries some people. Could internal assessment lead to varying standards, and might some institutions be less rigorous than others?
The grading system comes in for criticism on grounds of precision as well as quality. The GNVQ has only three pass grades (distinction, merit, pass) where A levels have five. The fear is that the advanced GNVQ will come to be regarded as "an A level for the less able". An Institute of Education report, showing that half the pupils embarking on the first advanced GNVQ had fewer than four GCSEs at grade C or above (the official minimum), is not reassuring here. A-level candidates were overwhelmingly better qualified at the same stage. Nevertheless, 70% of 1994's successful GNVQ students went on to higher education. But with only about 1,000 having completed their GNVQs so far, it's too early to draw conclusions.
Among the universities, the newer institutions have been the most receptive. Steven Kendall of Luton University calls the GNVQ "a welcome addition to the range of qualifications' available to applicants. A levels are handy but that doesn't necessarily mean they are the best." The more established seats of learning, which often demand three high-grade A levels, are more cautious (although it's also true that the top universities have received few, if any, applications so far). "We would prefer applicants to to have an A level in addition to a GNVQ," says Peter Dun of Warwick University.
John Hogan, academic registrar at Durham University, says that, while good GNVQs would certainly be considered, "we're very selective about A-level grades and it's difficult to see how they measure up". Manchester University's Professor Alan Smithers is very critical. While accepting the need for "good practical education," he thinks that GNVQs are probably not sufficiently demanding. Further, on account of their modular structure and assessment methods, "they are too-fragmented and don't allow for a coherent programme of study".
Employers' reactions seem, on the whole, to be favourable. (A number of companies were involved in their development.) "Basically we're accepting them as an A-level equivalent." says Matthew Jolly, Barclays' recruitment and selection manager. British Telecom is more positive still. "Our people in that field think that we should hold them in the same esteem as A levels. In areas such as industry and business the GNVQ could be considerably more welcome," says a spokesman. The new qualification has made a promising start. But the murkiness surrounding what it means in practice could yet reveal an Achilles heel.