According to Ofqual’s recent survey of attitudes towards qualifications, at least half of the general public consider that vocational options are of equal value to traditional academic routes.
It is an interesting statistic at a time when there is much concern and criticism about a narrowing of the curriculum, with a National Union of Teachers’ survey of more than 2,000 of its members earlier this year finding that two-thirds of teachers think there is “too much emphasis on ‘facts’ rather than skills” in the new curriculum.
Changes coming into effect in September will see most vocational qualifications ceasing to hold GCSE equivalency. This has been brought in by the Department of Education (DfE) based on the recommendations in Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education. It means that many vocational qualifications will no longer count towards school performance tables.
However, the importance of vocational qualifications is still recognised and supported by many within the sector, with research from the Edge Foundation and IPPR finding that 85 per cent of senior teachers believe vocational qualifications are valuable for their students, boosting motivation, confidence and transferable skills.
David Grailey, chief executive at awarding organisation NCFE, said: “I believe that in education, one size does not fit all – every individual is different and for every budding doctor there is an aspiring artist or musician. Their skills should be nurtured, developed and ultimately granted the same prestige as academic prowess. There are many routes to career success and the vocational pathway is a valid option for many young people.
“Vocational qualifications ensure learners meet the needs of their prospective employers and also offer them a way to expand their qualification range by accrediting the skills they develop. Teaching staff don’t need to be convinced of the benefits of vocational qualifications; the challenge is how to successfully weave them into the curriculum alongside the more ‘traditional’ subjects’.”
Mr Grailey is passionate that vocational qualifications can be used to give context and a real-life relevance to academic study. For example, qualifications in money management can be delivered alongside a related core subject such as mathematics, or qualifications in health and social care can work well alongside the sciences or citizenship and PSHE.
He added: “These short courses do a vital job in raising awareness of key issues in society and responding to critical issues and agendas such as nutrition, sexual health, alcohol awareness, environmental issues and equality and diversity.”
Nevertheless, a key decision for schools when planning for next year will be which qualifications now hold the all-important performance table points. With this in mind, NCFE has developed a suite of new 14 to 16 qualifications which fall in line with the DfE’s characteristics for qualifications that can hold value in the 2015 performance tables.
The new qualifications, called V Certs, are graded, and contain both internal and external assessment elements – two key criteria. Each qualification is equivalent to one GCSE. All five of the new qualifications are from within the creative studies sector and cover performance skills, graphic design, interactive media, music technology, and photography.
NCFE has been working with a number of educational advisors and schools to develop and test the qualifications before they launch in September.
A key concern for those schools involved was the major differences in grading between the old and new generation of vocational qualifications.
Previously many of the old style vocational qualifications did not require a formal grading structure. However, under the new system, in order to be deemed sufficiently rigorous and therefore achieve parity of performance points with GCSEs, all new vocational qualifications must have an element of external assessment and grading.
Schools working with NCFE have been actively engaged in assessing the new structure to grading and assessment. As a result of input from these schools, NCFE is now developing a number of resources to assist schools with approaching grading for the qualifications in an objective way. These include resources such as Sample Assessments and a Teacher Guide.
Liz Forrester, from educational consultancy Schools Improvement Agency, has worked on the project. She explained: “The feedback from schools has been invaluable and will really help to give schools confidence in delivering these qualifications.
“The content of qualifications such as the Art and Design V Cert has been acknowledged as being relevant and appropriate with real opportunity for project development. From the sample units reviewed, teachers have found that the style of project-based learning is a style that learners find genuinely engaging.”
Sarah Tinson, innovation, understanding and skills manager at Pent Valley Technology College in Kent, has had a positive experience with the qualifications so far.
She explained: “It will enable us to continue to offer a mixed curriculum that meets the needs of all our learners. Thelanguage used and the processes embedded in the V Certs mean that learners can learn in a style that reflects genuine industry practice and context.”
With such rapidly shifting sands, it is difficult to ensure that the school curriculum not only meets government requirements but also attends to the needs of learners. For schools planning their delivery of vocational qualifications for next year, what’s the best advice?
Mr Grailey added: “Over the years, many schools have described to us the benefits of vocational qualifications not using words like ‘performance points’ or ‘tables’, but talking about ‘engagement’, ‘motivation’ and ‘relevance’.
“These terms describe the true benefit of vocational qualifications to students. They are clearly where the real value of vocational education lies. All vocational qualifications, regardless of their point value, will continue to enrich pupil learning and education.”
Further informationNCFE is holding an event for schools at The Lowry Arts Centre in Salford Quays on July 2 to explain more about the new V Certs. For details, call 0191 239 8000 or visit www.ncfe.org.uk/events
Lindsay Plumpton is a reporter at NCFE.
CAPTION: Ready to go: Sarah Tinson and students at Pent Valley Technology College have been helping to trial and develop the new V Cert qualifications