As the CBI meets in Birmingham, Simon Targett reports on the latest developments in training. A Government watchdog this week issued a stinging indictment of the progress of the new vocational A levels, promoted as an alternative route to higher education, after finding that two-thirds of the students gain the equivalent of grade D at A level or less.
The Office of Standards for Education found that only one-third of the work produced by students on the advanced level General National Vocational Qualification was likely to deserve a merit or distinction grade, equivalent to A-C at GSE A level. They found that a fifth of the work was unsatisfactory.
Standards of work at intermediate GNVQ, equivalent to four GCSEs, were still more variable. Only one quarter of the portfolios were regarded as "generally good" and likely to be rewarded with a merit or distinction grade.
At all levels, there was greater consistency of achievement in art and design, business and science than in health and social care, leisure and tourism and manufacturing. In manufacturing, the least popular of the eight GNVQ subjects currently available, about half the work was deemed unsatisfactory.
Ofsted inspectors also criticised the organisation of the GNVQ system, calling for rigorous and more manageable assessment, better course design and tougher external checks. They demanded urgent action, arguing that "unless the rate of improvement is accelerated, their credibility will be undermined".
The NCVQ should clarify unit specifications, simplify the grading criteria, issue more exemplar material for teacher guidance, and establish quality control criteria for all GNVQ centres. The awarding bodies -- Business and Technology Education Council, City and Guilds, and the Royal Society of Arts Examinations Board -- should give more direct support to schools and extend the role of external verifier to encompass the moderation of standards of achievement. Ofsted said that much has been achieved by the schools introducing the GNVQs, but suggested that they should set up rigorous internal checks on standards and extend links with business and the community to support each GNVQ subject area.
The inspectors expressed surprise that little progress had been made in tackling the problems of GNVQs since the last Ofsted report, which led to the Government's publication of a six-point action in March. They said the latest study "raises again many of the issues identified in the Ofsted report" published in October 1993.
In a parallel report, the Further Education Funding Council agreed that the substantial part of the Government's action plan still needed to be implemented.
They also pointed to some new "teething problems", including the cross-college co-ordination of GNVQ provision, pre-enrolment guidance, the overall standard of work in intermediate programmes, and the volume of documentation for recording assessment.
NCVQ chief John Hillier said there were "inevitable teething problems" and acknowledged that though many schools and colleges have risen to the challenge of introducing GNVQs "not all have got it right". He said: "We are working hard to accelerate the development of our quality system."