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 662.


    What on Earth are you talking about? If a school fails to teach you anything, IT HAS FAILED. If it is 'up to the individual' to educate themselves, THE SCHOOL HAS NO PURPOSE and has failed utterly.

    Yes, the schools were lovely and warm, and with lots of shiny new technology. Maybe you could ask to live in one. What a shame they didn't actually use the money to TEACH anything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 661.

    Why can't we have dedicated, complete lists of vocational qualifications gained at school? Why must academic qualifications be valued above most vocational ones? I went to a 1950s grammar school and obtained quite a long list of academic qualifications, including a 1st class degree in the early '60s, but experience of life has taught me the value of vocational education and training.

  • rate this

    Comment number 660.

    646. Gloone

    I had the displeasure of attending a state high school in a half-rough area during the Tory reign of the 80's. To see potential go down the drain because the kids of the rougher families were completely skint was, looking back, heartbreaking. The schools had no provisions, it was a nightmare of underfunded Tory utopia

  • rate this

    Comment number 659.

    @Christine Blower, it shouldn't be up to the teaching profession to determine which qualifications are of more merit than others either, surely it should be up to the companies creating jobs to specify what qualifications they find more useful. More importantly, these qualifications need to be relevant and much more tailored to current standards in the working world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 658.

    I wonder how many of the government know-hows have tried to teach a class of disaffected children. Let them have a go. Firstly an academic subject which the children dislike and are failing. Secondly, a vocational subject which has a meaning as a career path and in which they succeed. I am only a teacher and am thinking of X, Y and Z who were little ... in Maths but shone in Technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 657.

    " to steer students onto courses in which they are going to succeed.
    "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."

    No mention of putting students on courses which prepare them for a career and basically saying dumb down in case it is too hard. Labour markets should 'pull' required skills through not vice versa

  • rate this

    Comment number 656.

    'Please tell me then when all these "easy" subjects are dropped..who will repair your car, fix your burst pipes, cut your hair etc?'

    Daft comment - these vocational courses do not turn out qualified plumbers/mechanics etc at 16yrs old. Far from it - they teach a basic knowledge of the subject, nothing more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 655.

    644.Alastair Gould
    Depends what you mean by basic.
    I mean calculus of variations , Laplace transforms, Fourrier etc.
    Everything that is required to develop formulae to represent the problem to be analysed in matrix format suitable for programming in FORTRAN. Design then follows based on further maths representing the properties of the materials

  • rate this

    Comment number 654.

    646. Gloone
    I went through the Conservative education system that was chronically underfunded, schools covered in damp and cold, I had to read books like everyone else has to educate yourself further - it is up to the individual, you sound like your moaning over nothing apart from a lack of attention - maybe the teacher should of sat your exams for you as well....

  • rate this

    Comment number 653.

    603.Guess Who Dunnit

    I disagree. Vocational subjects at school are just as important as academic subjects and should stay within any league table produced. It is the way these league tables are produced that should be changed to show how well the pupils are doing in each sector. That way the choice is better for the parents - not all children are good academically.

  • rate this

    Comment number 652.

    602. doug
    Please stop commenting on/replying to 522. He is clearly trolling for a reaction. Nobody really thinks mathematics which is of critical importance, is actually useless."

    Actually, for 80%+ of the population I think it is.

    Arithmetic is vital. Mathematics is almost never used after school, unless you are going into science, or engineering. Even accountants only use arithmetic,not maths

  • rate this

    Comment number 651.

    @641.Nomad, Yes hairdressing is a talent, im not saying it isnt, but i have seen box colours look as good as a salon dye, last time i had a salon dye they had a card that told them qty to use. A BTEC in it is no where near a GCSE in maths or science etc so why should people be rewarded the same, it makes the non-academics feel good, but it degrades the academic ones!

  • rate this

    Comment number 650.

    Missd_1984 - 'A hairdressing qualification is never going to lead to being an MD of a national corporation or running a massive business empire'

    What about Vidal Sassoon or Toni and Guy then?

  • Comment number 649.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 648.

    This is a smoke screen. Vocational courses provided people who didn't do well at school, for whatever reason, with an alternative route into higher education. They could study for a couple of NVQ's part time and possibly go on to university. This move is intended to block that escape route. Cameron's low wage, low skill economy has no need for an educated working class; quite the reverse in fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 647.

    Just good, old-fashioned honesty & transparency would be great with data & stats - show vocational & GCSE results, why not? Personally when my kids go to secondary school, I'd like them to attend a school which offers both types of courses - vocational & GCSE. Incidentally both kids are doing very well but I'd still like the vocational option to be there for them if that's the path they prefer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 646.

    To anybody seriously defending Labour's record in education: I am somebody who had to actually go through it. Let me be quite clear: it was appalling. The entire syllabus seemed to be dedicated to absolute nonsense, with a total lack of interest in academic individuals. The only worthwhile education I received was that which I got from personal reading; I received nothing at all from school.

  • rate this

    Comment number 645.

    Everyone's so busy knocking hairdressers, I thought it was time to redress the balance somehow.

    639.Shaunus in Poole
    It's my job to be picky about language, so that people like me don't complain to the company I work for about the standard of English in their letter-writers! Nothing smug about it, just saying, the English language doesn't need to be bastardised through ignorance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 644.

    Sorry, but basic calculus is no foundation for understanding the fundamentals of a creative subject such as engineering."

    Depends what you mean by basic? Integration by parts. Multivariate Calculus? Solid of a revolution. Laplace transforms? I did a vocational engineering course all these were covered.

  • rate this

    Comment number 643.

    Sergoba I went to school and uni in the 80s/90s so can recount from bitter experience how bad the tories were at education during the reign of Mrs T. Its never a good idea to have an anti-intellectual, reactionary bunch of ex-public schoolboys running state education. All they believe in is the old boy network, which is by and large the only reason any of them have got anywhere in the first place.


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