Students will be the losers if vocational courses are forced to include exams

Jul 17, 2014 by

Academic testing goes against the whole ethos of vocational learning, says the director of skills at the exam board OCR

Recently it was announced that exams are going to be a compulsory part of all level three vocational qualifications from 2016.

This might seem like a good idea – the government argues that it will improve the rigour of courses and businesses will value them more – but I feel we have to consider this carefully, and a survey we’ve carried out suggests that senior college and school leaders agree.

One of the major concerns raised by the 30 people we spoke to is that some students will struggle to fulfil their potential under an exam-based course. While teachers are generally happy for vocational courses to be subjected to additional scrutiny, they are concerned by the prospect of external assessment being defined only as an exam. This for many people, both providers and students, goes against the whole ethos of vocational learning, which is supposed to be assessed on practical output rather than whether someone can sit through an exam that won’t necessarily reflect their true skill level.

It’s also important to remember what makes vocational learning attractive to a lot of learners in the first place. Many of the leaders we spoke to said that students often tell them that one of the things they really like about their course is that it sits away from the academic nature of schools. Not all students flourish in exams and college staff are worried that some students are going to be put off by them and that their results will suffer.

An essential element of vocational training is producing well-rounded, confident students who are ready to join the workplace. Will exams achieve this? I don’t know that they will. Take, for example, a dyslexic student who even with the extra time allowed in exam conditions will undoubtedly struggle with demonstrating their true level of learning. Then there are those for whom English is not their first language – particularly relevant in certain disciplines like care workers.

We risk disengaging young people who may not have had a great experience of school, but who could potentially flourish in a less academic environment. We have to acknowledge that the traditional teaching system isn’t for everyone, or even appropriate for every type of career path, and that in some cases there has to be a different way of learning, and therefore assessing.

The main factor driving this change from Whitehall appears to be the desire to demonstrate that vocational qualifications are of a high quality. Much has been spoken about snobbery towards vocational learning and I suspect the government believes this is one way to knock such misconceptions on their head. But exams aren’t the only way to achieve this. Instead, we need to focus on ensuring that courses meet industry standards, that we apply the appropriate assessment to measure peoples’ competence and that colleges have the staff with the right expertise to teach the required skills.

At the moment, it is not clear how the final exams will look and I’m concerned that two years is too little time to introduce such a big change. Surely, it would be better to have a clear idea of how the exams will be structured and then work out appropriate time scales for colleges to put the right systems in place. It’s also imperative that all assessments are rigorously tested and evaluated before being implemented, and that the needs of all students are properly considered.

The government must think carefully about what it is proposing. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a new problematic system that’s been rushed through, wastes money and, worst of all, damages students’ prospects.

Charlotte Bosworth is the director of skills and employment at the exam board OCR

via Students will be the losers if vocational courses are forced to include exams | Education | Guardian Professional.

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