Lessons for life

Reforms to post-16 qualifications
bring a much more vocational slant and employers are about to feel their
impact. Elaine Essery swots up on their benefits

This summer’s exam
results will reveal the first outcomes of Curriculum 2000, the Government’s
reforms to post-16 qualifications.

The changes, effective from
September 2000, sprang from Lord Dearing’s Qualifying for Success report, which
called for greater breadth in the post-GCSE curriculum.

There are three key elements to the
reforms:

– A new Advanced Subsidiary
qualification, representing the first half of a full A-level, taken in the
first year of post-16 study
– Upgraded and more flexible Advanced GNVQs, known as vocational A-levels, to
encourage students to combine vocational and academic study
– A new Key Skills qualification, embracing the skills of communication,
application of numbers and IT

New vocational qualifications are
known as Vocational Certificates of Education. Courses are available as
three-unit programmes at AS-level, six-unit programmes at A-level and 12-unit
programmes leading to two A levels. GCE A-levels consist of six units.

Break from tradition

Instead of the traditional pattern
of studying three A-level subjects over two years, perhaps with General Studies
thrown in, it is envisaged that students will study up to five subjects, along
with Key Skills.

A survey of 1,300 schools and
colleges carried out by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas)
found that 70 per cent of sixth form students will be sitting four AS exams
this year and nine out of 10 will go on to take three A-levels (sometimes
referred to as A2s) in their second year.

More than half the schools were
encouraging science students to take at least one arts subject and arts
students to take at least one science. A higher-than-expected proportion (55
per cent) will be taking the Key Skills qualification.

A similar survey conducted by the
Secondary Heads’ Association (SHA) found that Key Skills would be assessed in
86 per cent of responding schools, although it does not follow that such a high
number would take the qualification.

Scope for a greater mix of subjects,
with DfEE assurances of no loss of rigour, and the added bonus of competence in
Key Skills could be good news for employers.

Margaret Murray, head of the
learning and skills group at the Institute of Directors, thinks so. “We welcome
the breadth – we’ve been calling for it for more than 10 years. A greater mix
of subjects is of greater benefit to employers generally. Science and maths are
terribly important and we want to see more young people achieving quality
results in both those areas,” she says.

Key qualification

But employers do not recruit
qualifications, they recruit people, she adds, and Key Skills breadth is as
important as subject breadth. “We want to be confident that with this breadth
young people are also developing the full range of soft skills that they need
to flourish in a job.

“If it just means that they’re doing
effectively four A-levels instead of three, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re
going to be able to communicate better and work well with others. The new Key
Skills qualification is an important element.”

Sue Bryant, group HR director at
construction company Taylor Woodrow, believes that the reforms can only help
ease current skills shortages and recruitment difficulties in the industry.

“Anything that gives people
flexibility and a greater opportunity for employment has got to be good, as
long as you’re not diluting the quality of the education they’re getting,” she
says.

“One thing I do like is the Key
Skills qualification. Often we find that people coming out of university are
not as well prepared as we’d hope in those areas.

“The other good thing about that is
that we sponsor students through university and it’s quite difficult to pick
the winners at 17 years of age, but a Key Skills qualification might be another
guide to their potential.”

While employers generally welcome
emphasis on Key Skills, for them the relevance of Key Skills is in their application
in a work-based environment.

The SHA survey showed that where Key
Skills are offered they are being taught in separate lessons in 55 per cent of
schools. It is something that concerns Jim Dobson, secretary of the Joint
Council for General Qualifications – the umbrella organisation for the relevant
awarding bodies.

“Teaching Key Skills as a separate
set of lessons gets away from the point, which to me is quite important, that
they’re not something separate but something which permeates all aspects of
what you do,” says Dobson.

Sceptical

Sue Peacock of Emta, the NTO for
engineering manufacture, and member of the Young People’s Learning Committee,
which advises the Learning and Skills Council, shares Dobson’s view and is
sceptical about the new qualification.

“Most of the Key Skills should be
embedded in subjects like maths and English rather than being separate. Having
a Key Skills qualification doesn’t seem to make sense. Why put the three things
together? They’re quite separate,” she says.

“If young people come out of schools
with better Key Skills, employers will be delighted. There’s a serious issue
about the low level, particularly of numeracy, and we need to get that right,
but I don’t think this is the right way of tackling it. It’s more about getting
the current subject syllabuses right so that young people come out with the
right skills in numeracy, communication and IT.”

Despite their potential to impact on
recruitment practices, the changes to post-16 qualifications have not been well
communicated to employers, it seems. According to Bryant, “As a parent of two
teenage children – one doing A-levels and one approaching them – I’m probably
more aware of the changes than some people.

“I think it hasn’t been communicated
as well as it might have been and it’s important for employers to know what’s
happening in the education system.”

Forte Hotels development manager,
Kevin O’Connor, says he hasn’t had any information about Curriculum 2000, but
adds that it may be due to the decentralisation of Forte’s training function.

O’Connor would very much welcome
applicants offering a VCE in hospitality and catering.

Different slant

“If there were a significant number
of people with vocational A-levels it would affect our recruitment patterns, as
we’d take a different slant.

“We would bring people in at that
level and it would become a targeted market that we would probably go for on an
annual basis.”

Such people would be ideal to train for
supervisory and management roles where both practical skills and knowledge are
needed.

“A-levels are very academic and lead
people to spend several years in the world of academia. By the time they are in
their mid-20s, they’re coming into the business way behind others who’ve taken
a more practical route,” O’Connor says.

“I think it’s great to have the
academic qualifications, but you have to have an equal balance.”

Vocational qualifications are also
seen as a way of stimulating students’ interest in specific occupational areas,
particularly those that do not have widespread appeal.

Bryant says, “The key for us is in
stimulating interest at an earlier stage. We’re not seen as a very sexy
industry, but people might be missing out on something. We want them, but they
have to see what’s in it for them so the earlier they can be made aware of the
possibilities the better it will be for everybody.”

Peacock agrees and stresses the
importance of vocational GCSEs, which are currently being developed.

“Some of our employers see
vocational qualifications as a means of getting young people interested at an
early stage and creating a generally more positive attitude to engineering. The
feeling is that there will be some positive effect throughout,” she says.

“The main disadvantage is if it
doesn’t become something of a norm for people to do vocational qualifications
as well as traditional academic qualifications and the vocational route is seen
only as something for the disaffected and those of low ability.

“If there’s going to be any parity
of esteem between vocational and academic qualifications it should become much
more of a norm for most young people to do some vocational work at Key Stage
4,” Peacock adds.

Low take-up

There is, however, little evidence
that students are mixing vocational and academic qualifications. The reality is
that the take-up of VCEs is quite low at present and there does appear to be a
“class” division.

Ucas’ survey shows that, overall,
only 10 per cent of school sixth formers are undertaking them, although this
rises to 25 per cent in comprehensive schools.

And the Secondary Heads’ Association
survey indicates that only 5 per cent of independent schools are offering them.

In the great majority of schools
only three or fewer of the 14 possible VCE subjects are being offered, the
three largest take-up areas being business, IT and health and social care.

Curriculum 2000 may be a good thing
in principle, but for employers its impact is unlikely to be profound. It will
take time to for vocational qualifications to lose their “second class” tag.

“When kids are signing up for
post-16 qualifications, their parents are a big influence and if parents
perceive things as a second-rate option they’re not going to encourage their
children to go ahead,” says Bryant.

“Vocational AS- and A-levels aren’t
a bad thing, but I think GNVQs weren’t seen as a tough enough option and once
you’ve had something like that it’s difficult to beef it up and change people’s
perceptions.”

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