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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK
Concern over new A-level results
Colleges say there appear to be problems with some of the first exams in the new vocational A-levels, taken by students in January.
The Association of Colleges, which represents those in the further education sector, is so concerned that it is collating results from across England - something which is not done officially.
"Something is wrong," said Alan Harrison, principal of Mackworth College, Derby.
To begin with, individual colleges thought they were somehow at fault. But talking to one another on an e-mail discussion list to which some 300 subscribe, principals had realised they were not alone.
Parity of esteem
Vocational A-levels, two-year courses made up of six units, were introduced in September, replacing 12-unit Advanced GNVQs.
Students can re-sit their papers once, this summer, as with modular A-levels.
What is troubling colleges is that not only will individual students have their self-confidence badly dented but that the new system will get a bad name and students will be put off taking vocational A-levels next year.
Alan Harrison said that it was not good enough to say the new exams were meant to be more rigorous.
"Either people have not briefed the sector properly or something has gone awry in the testing."
He said there were also reports of data inputting problems at the exam board Edexcel - five of his students had received no results at all.
He rejects the idea that it might be teaching quality that is at fault, on the grounds that his staff have a good track record.
"There haven't been significant changes in the teachers, they are up to speed in terms of their professional development, the in-house results are consistent with previous years. The one inconsistency is the test results."
Prompted by concerns such as these the Association of Colleges is conducting a survey of the January test results among its members.
Among the returns collected so far by quality adviser Maggie Scott:
She said experienced teachers were "bewildered".
"They have done the training that was offered them and, with the best will in the world, have prepared their students as well as they have in the past, and yet inexplicably they are getting very low grades."
This was hitting enthusiasm for the new "Curriculum 2000" which had got off to a flying start in the autumn term.
Teachers felt that although the changes had been implemented too quickly, the exam questions had been largely what they had expected.
The key issue seemed to be that the standard expected of the students was too high.
Ms Scott said colleges were troubled that more was being expected of those studying for the new Vocational A-levels than of students taking the new AS-levels, first year precursors to full A-levels.
It was assumed in the marking that AS-level students would not have the maturity to answer questions in the same way as they would at the end of the second year.
But for Vocational A-level students there was no such distinction.
"All the papers are marked at the same level, even though they will only just have arrived at the college and had about 12 weeks of tuition - so we are concerned about equality of opportunity."
And now that they were equivalent to A-levels, colleges had no viable alternative to offer those students who were failing to cope - at a time when they were being expected to get more students into education.
"Those colleges are the ones who are dealing with the lower end of student ability and just when we are attracting more people in, the opportunities are narrowing."
Edexcel, which is the exam board for some three quarters of the vocational qualifications, declined to comment.
A spokesman for the Joint Council for General Qualifications, the umbrella body for exam boards, said it did not collate the results from the January exams because they had to be amalgamated with all the other units students took.
The flexibility existed for students to "have a go" in January if colleges had completed the teaching - or they could defer the exam until they had a better grasp of the subject matter.
At Mackworth College, Alan Harrison is sad that what appears to have happened might sour the whole change and perpetuate what has been called "a very British snobbery" that disparaged vocational learning.
"It would be a great shame if you put people off because it is a welcome development. For 25 years I have been trying to get rid of the academic-vocational divide.
"It's the operation of the change that seems to have gone wrong."
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