Ministers missing 'basic' message

September 8, 1995

The THES (August 21), ministers and "experts" have expressed surprise and bewilderment at low GNVQ completion rates but the reasons and solutions for these are known and were well documented by Andy Green of the post-16 centre of London University Institute of Education in a report for the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets published last January.

The report cites funding policy pressures and social and economic factors as interacting to the detriment of higher national academic and vocational achievement rates.

One of the primary reasons for students dropping out of General National Vocational qualification courses is that they lack the basic literacy, numeracy and computing skills to keep up or succeed in essential parts of the assessment. It is not, as Professor Smithers suggested in a recent television interview, because of major variations in assessment standards across the colleges.

Research by the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit in 1993 showed that up to 40 per cent of college students needed help with communications to get to level 2 standard and 60 per cent needed it in maths. The report by Alison Wolfe demonstrates that, in the face of competition, colleges are allowing students to enter GNVQ courses without the pre-specified entry requirements.

Combine this lack of basic skills with a funding policy which both pressurises colleges to recruit large numbers of lowish ability school-leavers and penalises colleges if students fail to complete in a set period, provides no student financial support, continues to overvalue A levels and you get a recipe for high drop-out/non-completion rates. Green's research report warns of this and recommends changes in four areas:

* Guidance and support structures need tightening up with a particular emphasis on strict implementation of the necessary entry standards

* Improved core skills provisions

* Financial support through a national system of discretionary awards for young people in the colleges

* Flexible/extended routes to allow students more time to complete their courses and adjusting the funding system to support this.

Professor Smithers's comments on the problem of wide variations in assessment completely misses the mark, Green's report should be read by ministers and experts alike, inwardly digested and acted on while apparent bewilderment about the reason for GNVQ course drop-out is to say the least disingenuous.

KEN MARCH

Senior lecturer in post-16 education University of Greenwich

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