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GCSEs – or the poor-man’s equivalent

Poor quality ‘vocational’ or ‘vocationally related’ qualifications at GCSE are locking both low-income pupils and vocational education into second-class status.

  • Pseudo ‘vocational’ qualifications being used to artificially reach A*-C GCSE targets
  • Poorer pupils more likely to be pushed into vocational qualifications

Out of the thousands of pupils getting their GCSE results today, many will have been sold short with sub-standard vocational qualifications.

A new report from independent think-tank Civitas, School Improvement – or the ‘Equivalent’, shows how a blind focus on the A*-C benchmark, together with a failure to truly improve schools, has led to a scenario in which pupils are being encouraged to opt out of academic courses and into irrelevant so-called ‘vocational’ qualifications to boost national GCSE results.

‘Too many people are being cheated in this government stunt: pupils, employers, the public,’ said Anastasia de Waal, Head of Family and Education and author of the report, ‘and all to make the government look like it’s doing better than it is.’

The equivalence game: narrowing the performance gap but widening the opportunity gap

In school and national GCSE league tables vocational qualifications are indistinguishable from academic GCSEs. Subjects such as tourism, construction and retail are now worth up to 4 A*-C GCSEs. The notorious GNVQ has been dropped but a mass of ‘successor’ vocational qualifications have sprung-up and the take-up of vocational qualifications has risen dramatically. [See table of equivalents p9-10]

The government claims that inclusion of vocational qualifications in the GCSE league tables is to highlight their ‘parity of esteem’ with academic GCSEs. Why therefore does new research in the report by former head teacher Roger Titcombe find schools so reluctant to reveal how their ‘GCSEs’ were gained? [p8]

The answer to this lies in what is learnt on these GCSE-level vocational courses. Below is one of the six units of a vocational qualification in Travel and Tourism, worth up to 4 A* GCSEs in the league tables:

‘Investigating Package Holidays (Tour Operations). Examining the role of the tour operator and how package holidays are developed. Students develop their practical skills in presenting a simple welcome party for a resort.’ [p15]

Aside from the highly questionable idea that 14 years-olds have already decided tourism is the career for them, a more useful area of study at school would be a language or geography.

‘Occupational’ qualifications

In theory vocational qualifications are ‘broadening’ the GCSE curriculum and elevating the status of vocational qualifications. In fact vocational qualifications at this level are used to ‘occupy’ or baby-sit weaker pupils who jeopardise A*-C GCSE targets by teaching them about work, but not the skills. Essentially they are ‘filler’ courses before pupils can go on to genuine vocational education. This is made clear by both the examining boards and, less euphemistically, schools:

Stoke Newington School 2008-09 GCSE options guidance:‘A [Key Stage 2] SAT score of less than 14 means that your chances of getting 5 A to C grades as a minimum at GCSE are greatly reduced following a standard GCSE curriculum and you should strongly consider following a BTEC or Diploma course as well as the GCSE courses.’ (Hackney is one of the first local authorities which will be able to offer the Diploma from September 2008). [p13]

Unsurprisingly employers are not impressed. In the words of a Construction Ambassador for the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB):

‘The poor image of the construction industry today is a direct result of amputating pupils’ academic and intellectual development by feeding them shallow and superficial vocational introductions before they have grasped the fundamental core skills with which to excel in their specialisations. [p18]

‘What is particularly striking about the entire approach in the GCSE game is just how anti-education it is,’ commented author of the report Anastasia de Waal. ‘The value of participating in a course is insignificant compared to the grade the pupil gains at the end of the course. That’s why lower-performers are being encouraged to do pointless vocational courses.’

Low-income pupils greatest losers in the system A strong relationship between lower predicted GCSEs and entitlement to free school meals means that lower-income pupils are disproportionately likely to be ‘pushed’ into these poor quality vocational courses. New data on ‘rapidly improving’ Academies, which cater for higher numbers of low-income pupils, shows that in these schools in particular vocational qualifications are being used to bolster their headline GSCE figures. [p7]

However pupils cannot use this false ‘parity’ with GCSEs, and unlike the school and the government all they are left with is a learning experience and qualification of questionable value. As QCA chief Ken Boston, the very man who accredited this equivalence, says: ‘It is the school, not the pupil, that accrues the points. A young person with a GNVQ cannot properly claim to have four GCSEs, nor vice-versa.’

Diplomas: the next level

The report suggests that what we are seeing today is a fledgling form of what could happen once the Diploma is phased in, this September. There are too many qualifications being manufactured to suit government targets and not enough concentration on actually improving existing education. The Diploma is set to take this weakness to the next level.

The report concludes that ultimately vocational qualifications need to be withdrawn from the 14-16 curriculum.

Notes to editors:

  • It is critical to state that this report does not seek to undermine the value of vocational qualifications: on the contrary, it intends to assert that such learning is too advanced to be suitable for pupils below the age of 16.
  • The full report can be read below.
Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party. Civitas’s education research seeks to take an objective view of educational standards in Britain. It aims to offer an improved perspective on how best to deliver equitable and high standards of education for all.


For more information ring:

Anastasia de Waal, Head of Family and Education / 020 7799 6677 (office)


School Improvement - or the 'Equivalent'

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