Most GCSE equivalents axed from school league tables


Prof Alison Wolf explains her new criteria for vocational courses

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Ministers have cut the value of more than 3,100 vocational qualifications, ending their recognition in England's school league tables.

Courses such as horse care can be worth the same as four GCSEs.

The government says this has created "perverse incentives" for schools to offer exams that boost their league table position.

From 2014, only 70 "equivalents" will count in the GCSE tables and on a like-for-like basis with GCSEs.

The move could make schools less likely to continue to offer such qualifications, and the government has instructed them to wait for its final list before changing their timetables for September 2012.

Other examples of courses that may not be included in future league tables are the level 1 certificate in practical office skills; the BTec level 2 extended certificate in fish husbandry; and the level 2 certificate in nail technology services, all currently worth two GCSEs.

Some of those that will still count include a number of BTecs and OCR Nationals in performing arts, sport, health and social care, media, music and engineering.

Figures from the Department for Education show that the numbers of teenagers taking equivalent vocational courses has exploded in recent years - from 15,000 in 2004 to 575,000 in 2010.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said the changes would extend opportunity because only qualifications which had demonstrated rigour, and had track records of taking young people into good jobs or university, would count in the future.


  • The size of a GCSE or bigger
  • Externally assessed - at least partly
  • Include grades, rather than just pass or fail
  • Offer progression to further qualifications and careers
  • Have good take-up levels among 14- to 16-year-olds

The shake-up comes after last year's review of vocational qualifications for the government by Prof Alison Wolf, which suggested schools had been tempted to teach qualifications that attract the most points in school performance tables.

This had meant students had been steered into notching up qualifications which may not help them into work or higher education, she suggested.

Mr Gove said: "The weaknesses in our current system were laid bare by Prof Wolf's incisive and far-reaching review. The changes we are making will take time, but will transform the lives of young people.

"For too long the system has been devalued by attempts to pretend that all qualifications are intrinsically the same. Young people have taken courses that have led nowhere."


But many who took part in the consultation on the issue feared the new measures may lead schools to only offer qualifications that could be included in performance tables.

Others feared the move might undervalue vocational qualifications altogether and have a negative impact upon disengaged young people who are often encouraged by such courses.

In particular the engineering community reacted angrily to the downgrading of the Engineering Diploma which was developed by leading academics and industrialists to provide a robust alternative to traditional academic qualifications.

Prof Wolf said she hoped the proposed shortlist would give "good vocational qualifications exactly the same status as any other qualifications".

"People were doing lots of qualifications which were getting league points for their schools but which, when they went out into the labour market or when they went to college, they found actually nobody valued.

"So we were essentially lying to kids and that's a terrible thing to do."

She added that she did not want children of 13 making "irreversible decisions" about their futures by choosing such specific courses.

Even after the reforms, the UK was likely to remain the European country which awarded the most vocational qualifications to 14- to 16-year-olds, she said.

Former Education Secretary David Blunkett said it was "entirely wrong" if schools were deliberately seeking to skew league tables but warned the tone of reforms risked discrediting important vocational qualifications.

"If there's a problem, let's root it out. But let's encourage youngsters to mix and match," he told the BBC's Today programme.

"I got my qualifications by getting a vocational qualification in business studies and going to evening classes to get A-levels at the same time."

'Turned off'

James Whiting, deputy head of Chiswick Community School in west London, said it was unfair to accuse schools of bumping up league tables with vocational qualifications.

"I think often the motivation for schools, like ours, is to steer students onto courses in which they are going to succeed.

Start Quote

It should not be up to the government to decide which exams are of more merit than others”

End Quote Christine Blower National Union of Teachers

"What we don't want to do is to create a situation where students are set up to fail on courses that they find very hard."

He said the right, and rigorous, vocational qualifications were needed, but "we don't want to turn young people off".

As well as the 70 equivalents that will count towards the school's five good GCSE grades including English and maths, a further 55 will be valid for other league table measures.

However, the DfE will be reviewing the majority of qualifications to ensure they meet the new standards after 2014.

The shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, welcomed attempts to maintain rigour in the qualification system but warned against rushed changes.

"We need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water," he said.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "It should not be up to the government to decide which exams are of more merit than others. This is something which should be assessed by major stakeholders such as the teaching profession and awarding bodies.

"Vocational education has often suffered from being viewed unfavourably. These reforms are likely to exacerbate the vocational/academic divide."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, questioned the wisdom of downgrading qualifications taken by so many young people.

"Changes of this scale, in the absence of any detailed review of the courses are reckless," she said.

"They will disenfranchise thousands of young people, remove qualifications employers value, narrow the school curriculum even more and lead to disaffection among pupils."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    How many workers are summoned to the bosses,’ office and given 1 hour to write a report under exam conditions, without the use of notes and not allowed to ask the boss any questions etc?

    Or are you given a deadline, allowed to ask your boss questions an to write as many drafts as you want and get your colleague to proof read before you submit it.

    GCSE exams do not measure the real world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    I would have thought at a time where many young people can no longer afford to consider going to university, these vocational qualifications are are step on the ladder they need now more than ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    @533 Missd_1984

    And just how is the hair dresser meant to work out their budget, what change to give customers, what to charge customers, open up their own salon, their profit ........ without some education in maths?

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    Lleague table stats have been fiddled for years by using " equivalent " subjects.One of the worst places here, now a massive " academy" ,has endless semi-literate, semi-numerates walzing around claiming to have 14, 15 or 16 GCSE As when what they had was English, Maths, worthless things like PE plus three of these fakes.The head is now nationally prominent - will he now be labelled a cheat?

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    Exam passes are supposed to be towards getting into Uni therefore they should be academic. Vocational courses should still be available for pupils who do not wish to go onto uni. Therefore Vocational courses should not count as a GCE pass. It makes sense and gives a clearer picture of what is going on in schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    I would type something clever or sarcastic, but my nails ain't dry innit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    Over the past sixty years, In the German education system, vocational courses have been valued. In the British education system, prior to value being given to them recently, vocational courses were not valued.

    Which of these countries has a better educated workforce?

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    503. Concerned
    23 Minutes ago

    A maths qualification has demonstrated an ability to learn something that can be useful in many different fields, science, technology, business and engineering for starters. The decision as to which one can be made later when the student has a better idea of what is possible.

    A hairdressing qualification good for only one thing with no alternatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    There are some incredibly stupid comments on this HYS. The govt. does not want everyone to be academic, or go to university, nor are they telling some kids they are useless. I have never in my 64 years heard anyone say or imply anything remotely like that. There are better places to gain vocational qualifications. Schools are simply failing in their duty to provide good basic education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    A hairdresser with a BTEC might be more employable immediately, but how high can you get in the rank of hairdresser? Senior Stylist perhaps, or if your fortunate enough to have a bit of business acumen then maybe your own salon? Take someone with GCSEs in Maths, English, Science, a language, History, Geography - are they going to have as few options for their future careers??

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    "We need... hairdressers... not useless degrees. What's the point of learning quadratic equations?"

    ARGHHH.!!! Your satnav requires the solution of simultaneous sets of quadratic equations. Was GPS developed in UK? NO. Is Galileo being developed in UK? NO. Massive technology investment & commerical benefits - ABSENT from UK.

    But hey, hairdressing? No problem. Have a seat sir...

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    @503 Concerned
    Nothing wrong with vocational training but problem is pushing kids before testing them in hard subjects. Of course hairdressers are wanted (not necessarily needed) but it is waste if a kid who is capable of being a Doctor/Engineer ends up being a hairdresser because of misguided choice. With hard subjects one can go further than a hairdresser who probably gets stuck in hair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    It must be clear by now that the Coalition, Labour Strategists wishing to get re-elected and the legion of Educational experts/pundits have finally recognised (but not yet admitted) that the best way to improve education in schools is to stop interfering and constantly introducing new "initiatives" .....and set about dismantling/repealing everything New Labour did to Education while in Office.

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    525. rhy.
    completely agree, but what about people who to be honest, don't really excel at anything, in fact don't do anything at a high enough aptitude to get a paid job doing it? I hate to say it but such people do exist. Should we continue to pretend that "qualifications" will help, or should we be realistic and ensure that basic unskilled labour pays enough in the UK to live on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    Someone on this forum (a teacher?) suggested that schools are forced to manipulate the league table system to get funding (and not to make the teaching staff look good - as if!). Don't believe this for one minute but if it were true why not turn it around and give more funding for schools ranked lower in the tables and then see what schools do!

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    It sounds reasonable. Vocational qualifications are massively important, and it does not sound as though the govt. is downgrading or downscaling them.

    The issue appears to be the way the imbalance in the equivalence to academic subjects, which is used by schools to pretty up their results.

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    If people want to learn how to be nail technicians or do other vocational things, by all means let them - as long as doing such a course makes you more able to do the job in the real world. But don't tell me that it has twice the value of something like English, maths or science, which used to be the case before these reforms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    The fundamental principle here is the need to to ensure that ALL our children have an appropriate education that allows them to achieve the best they can. We must ensure our most able and academic children are enabled to access good academic qualifications. AND we must ensure that our less academic children are able to shine at something they excel in. There is space for both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    There are those who criticise our formal educational system of the past.
    It was never perfect but consider the brilliant discoveries and inventions that came from those who enjoyed or endured it.Or was that due to the open-minded thinking that followed the Reformation?
    Formality and Creativity are not exclusive.They go hand in hand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    Of course I blame the kids,why weren't they clever enough to have been born with rich parents who can buy them an expensive education. Including such wonderfully useful subjects as Latin and Ancient Greek and there is the added bonus that if you turn out to be a congenital upper class twit the teachers take the exams for you!

    Ah yes the joys of Public School Education.

    We are all in it together.


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