(GNVQs were introduced in September 1993 after a one year pilot).
GNVQs developed as a result of a complex set of industrial and political interactions and it was triggered by the CBIs concerns about the effectiveness of NVQs. The government picked up these concerns and accepted that vocational education and training needed reform and improvement. The White Paper Education and Training in the 21st Century, published in May of 1991, expressed an intention to establish ‘parity of esteem’ between academic and vocational education and training (how many times have we heard that intention!). The National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) in 1991 were given the remit to commission the development of the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ) which were to be unit based qualifications. In addition they were to be a broad- based vocational education relevant to a wide range of occupational areas of work. GNVQs derived from NVQs and built upon approaches to learning brought about by the vocational initiatives of the 1980s e.g. BTEC and TVEI. They were to be initially based on ten knowledge areas and introduced into schools and colleges, with another five areas of development to be included later. They were to be taught mainly full- time alongside GCSEs and GCE ‘A’ levels. Unfortunately the specifications made the assumption that there would be limited work experience and any active modes of learning would be through projects, assignments and where opportunities existed limited work experience.
The initial consultation documents stated the purpose of the GNVQ qualifications as follows:
- Support the establishment of a coherent, flexible and fair qualifications framework that promotes individual development and national targets;
- Ensure assessment is valid, reliable and free from avoidable barriers;
- Promote purposeful qualifications which meet the full range of needs while avoiding unnecessary duplication and overlap;
- Clarify the relationships between qualifications in different families.
Their creation gave rise to the three track system in England and Wales i.e. based on the so-called academic ‘A’ levels, the GNVQs (mainly full-time) and the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) mainly studied in the workplace by employees and trainees. Scotland had a similar system e.g. Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs), General Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVVQs) and the Highers. The qualifications were developed to be an alternative pathway of progression both to Further/Higher Education and work.
GNVQs were designed to incorporate the essential features of NVQs and could be seen as an extension of the NVQ model. In addition they were influenced by earlier and existing qualifications CPVE and BTEC. The student outcomes were given in terms of ‘statement of achievement’ similar in nature to the NVQ ‘statement of competence.’ GNVQS drew heavily on the theory and practice of competence-based education and training and hence was an assessment led-innovation.
The basic design model was configured on six elements namely: assessment outcomes and procedures, core skills development, grouping of units, knowledge acquisition and portfolio compilation. Therefore in summary they would provide the basic skills and an understanding of the underlying principles in a vocational area and the award was achieved with a range of core skills. There were three levels namely Foundation (level 1), Intermediate (level 2 – equivalent to GCSE) and Advanced (level 3 – equivalent to GCE ‘A’ level). All the GNVQs were based on a number of units which were assessed separately and awarded credits towards the achievement of the qualification. GNVQ unlike NVQs did not attempt to develop directly occupational competence but rather to achieve a foundation of skills, knowledge and understanding that would underpin a range of occupations. The intention together with the work place NVQs would become the primary provision for vocational education and training.
During 1991 the NCVQ worked with the major vocational awarding bodies e.g. CGLI, BTEC and RSA the national education agencies and government departments drafting the criteria for the GNVQs and the specifications for the first five broad vocational areas. The frameworks allowed considerable flexibility of delivery as the specifications did not pre-define a syllabus or learning programme but only the expected outcomes. There was no fixed time period for the award as individual differences between students was recognised and this as was particularly helpful to adult learners who could study part-time at a college whilst working and also undertake open or private study. The ideal was that GNVQs would offer a genuine alternative to ‘A’ levels for students who preferred the more flexible and active modes of learning and that the programmes had a more vocational relevant focus. A number of commentators observed that GNVQ allowed the students to take greater responsibility for their own learning. This contrasted with the more traditional approach which favoured a much narrower focus on learning and emphasised ‘learning about rather than learning how to. They further argued that these approaches were valued by employers and FE/HE institutions and allowed the use of flexible and efficient learning modes and made effective use of teacher time and physical resources.
Advanced GNVQ (level 3) provided access to HE as well as a foundation for further education or training and employment. The standard was comparable to GCE ‘A’ and ‘AS’ level. One vocational unit was equivalent to one sixth of an ‘A’ or one third of an ‘AS’. Therefore a GNVQ level 3 was awarded on 12 vocational units that was equivalent to 2 GCE ‘A’ levels. Also the students were required to achieve three core skills. The 12 vocational units comprised eight mandatory units in a chosen vocational area plus four optional units chosen from a given list which extended the depth of the mandatory units and could involve more specialised applications. The mandatory units covered the basic fundamental skills, principles and processes that reflected the student’s particular chosen vocational area but also offered the opportunity to gain an insight into related occupations.
Intermediate GNVQ (level) mirrored the Advanced GNVQ but based on six units and obviously less demanding and was usually offered as a one year full-time course. Core skills and additional units were also available at this level. Progression from the Intermediate GNVQ was to Advanced GNVQ, NVQ at level 2 or 3 (depending on the occupational area) and employment.
Core Skills was a new and important feature of the GNVQs and presented many challenges to the designers, teachers and students throughout the development of the GNVQs. There were to be six core skills namely: application of number more often referred to as numeracy, communication, information technology, personal skills, problem solving and competence in a modern foreign language. The core skills of application of number, communication and information technology were introduced in September 1992 and those of a modern foreign language during the 1992/93 session. The other core skills were not introduced but were piloted for introduction in 1993. Work was also underway to extend the framework to the higher levels e.g. 4 and 5 but this did not materialise but taken over by other developments with the qualification and curriculum framework QCF) which interestingly continues even today.
The Labour government announced in 1990 that GNVQs would be discontinued and replaced by so-called vocational GCSEs and ‘A’ levels. It seemed to many of us that GNVQs were airbrushed out of history and yet again a worthy and potentially promising programme to establish parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications and to raise the profile of vocational education and training was lost. Again it was undermined by political interference and the continuing obsession of the gold standard of GCE ‘A’ level (see pen portrait on this website). Many politicians and academics constantly criticised the GNVQs particularly the assessment regimes, wishing for the more formal and traditional forms of examining. Also it should be noted that GNVQs were designed exclusively by the NCVQ (a government agency) who had a strong commitment to a particular assessment methodology which was against formal examinations and required very comprehensive outcome specifications.
GNVQs were taken up relatively rapidly by schools and colleges and demonstrated the need for an alternative to traditional qualifications e.g. GCSE and GCE ‘A’ levels. In 1994/95 there were 250,000 students registered on GNVQ programmes. Their introduction did increase the staying on rate post 16 and did increase progression rates e.g. many students progressed from foundation to intermediate and then onto the advanced GNVQ. The numbers were never great when compared with the traditional offering but nevertheless could have been, if they had been more fully supported by government and academics could have created a broader more enlightened curriculum and engendered parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications.
Many who had attempted to make the programmes work in spite of their complexity and additional workload particularly associated with their management still felt GNVQ could ultimately develop into a valuable qualification but it was not to be. I chaired the national advisory committee for the GNVQ science awards and presided over an influential group of employers from scientifically based companies, industrialists, teachers and representatives from scientific professional bodies. At one meeting totally unannounced we were informed by a very senior person from the Qualification Curriculum Authority (QCA) that he felt such advisory groups served little or no purpose and were to be disbanded! Surely if one is attempting to create a respected new qualification one needs the support and guidance of employers and professional bodies but obviously the powers at the time were not committed to the success of GNVQ. Right from the beginning the development of GNVQs looked and worked with industry, external organisations and the local community that were related to their vocational area of study as a source of reference and ongoing support and guidance. (It is important to note that QCA was created by the merger of the NCVQ and the SAA and was very much focussed on the academic qualifications and their management of the GNVQs reflected that bias).
The awards were eventually phased out completely in 2007 and were replaced by vocational GCSEs and ‘A’ levels – that will be another interesting development to look at in a couple of years!