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Post 14 Research Group

Constructing vocational education: from TVEI to GNVQ

David Yeomans
School of Education, University of Leeds


Introduction 1

I From TVEI to GNVQ: 
Diagnosing the problem: an economic discourse
Creating a 'practical' curriculum
Progressivism in TVEI and GNVQ

II From TVEI to GNVQ: Discontinuities
Political and institutional origins
Curricular origins
Mode of curricular operation
Mode of curriculum development
Collaboration and consortia working
Scope of curricular change
Method of curriculum change
Conclusion - Shifting modes of vocational education


A levels - GCE Advanced level courses HMCI - Her Majesty's Chief Inspector

BTEC - Business and Technology Education Council

HMI - Her Majesty's Inspectors

C&G - City and Guilds of London Institute

LEA - Local Education Authority

CBI - Confederation of British Industry

LMS - Local Management of Schools

CPVE - Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education

MSC - Manpower Services Commission

DES - Department of Education and Science

NCC - National Curriculum Council

DFE - Department for Education

NCVQ - National Council for Vocational Qualifications

DVE - Diploma of Vocational Education

NVQs - National Vocational Qualifications

EBPs - Education Business Partnerships

ROA - Record of Achievement

ED - Employment Department

RSA - Royal Society of Arts

ESRC - Economic and Social Research Council

SCAA - School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

FEDA - Further Education Development Agency

SCIP - Schools Council Industry Project

FEU - Further Education Unit

TECs - Training and Enterprise Councils

GCE - General Certificate of Education

TVEI - Technical and Vocational Education Initiative

GCSE - General Certificate of Secondary Education

YOPS - Youth Opportunities Scheme

GNVQs - General National Vocational Qualifications

YTS - Youth Training Scheme


This paper draws upon two major ESRC-funded projects, a medium term study of the impact of TVEI and a study of the construction of the GNVQ curriculum as well as several smaller research and evaluation projects concerned with TVEI and GNVQs. The paper compares TVEI and GNVQ and draws out some of the similarities and differences. It will focus upon the different policy and implementation frameworks provided by the two programmes and the implications of these differences for practice. It is important to note at the outset that TVEI and GNVQ had somewhat different aims, scope and methods of procedure and that therefore this paper does not compare like with like in any strict sense. Neither does the paper provide a comprehensive account of the development of vocational education in the 1980s and 1990s since TVEI and GNVQ were only two among a whole series of programmes designed to promote vocational education and training. However, among these various schemes TVEI and GNVQ were the most significant of those aimed at students in full-time education and the comparative approach adopted in the paper throws light on some of the key characteristics of both programmes and assists in evaluating the effectiveness of different approaches to policy and curriculum development.

The introductions of TVEI and GNVQ were separated by less than ten years and operationally the two programmes overlapped within many schools and colleges. However, there were very significant differences in the ways in which TVEI and GNVQ set about tackling deficiencies in vocational education for the 14-19 age group. I shall argue that the discontinuities between them are manifestations of frequent policy shifts, or "policy hysteria" (Stronach and Morris, 1994), in the methods adopted to address policy 'problems'.

TVEI had its heyday in the period 1983-87 when it set the agenda and made the pace as far as upper secondary education was concerned. From about 1988 however, with the return to prominence of the DES and the promulgation of the National Curriculum, TVEI was increasingly marginalised. Indeed one of the puzzles of TVEI is how it managed to survive and continue to disburse substantial although declining funds for a further ten years (it will end nationally in 1997) despite its star being in decline for a good proportion of that time. GNVQs rose to prominence in the first half of the 1990s and were soon hailed as a success story. More recently however, there has been increasing criticism of GNVQs, their elder sibling NVQs and their parent NCVQ. Their future in the wake of the Dearing review of 16-19 qualifications (Dearing, 1995) seems reasonably secure but they are to be subjected to continuing reform following the Capey Review (NCVQ, 1995) and the merging of NCVQ and SCAA in 1997.


While there were substantial discontinuities between TVEI and GNVQ there were also some elements of continuity, particularly at the level of broad policy and it is these which are considered in this section.

Diagnosing the problem: an economic discourse

The first element of continuity is that TVEI and GNVQ were both responses to the diagnosis of the weaknesses of vocational education in England and Wales. Both were part of a prolonged attempt to reform and revitalise vocational education. This renewed interest in vocationalism can be traced back to James Callaghan's 1976 Ruskin College speech, although debates around the content, character and purpose of vocational education and its relationship to, and differentiation from, other forms of education go back much further. The historical record shows that interest in vocational education increases during periods of economic difficulty and the late 1970s and early 1980s were marked by rapidly rising unemployment and the decimation of important sectors of the economy. In the wake of Callaghan's speech, the subsequent 'Great Debate' and the election of a Conservative government a plethora of White Papers were produced containing a wide variety of proposals for the reform of vocational education. Acronyms multiplied as general policy statements were translated into specific programmes and courses - YOPS, YTS, TVEI, CPVE, DVE, NVQs, GNVQs - the list is itself evidence of both continuity and flux - the 'problem' remained constant, the means of tackling it ever-changing. This group of projects are widely known collectively as constituting the 'new vocationalism' and while this disguises important differences between programmes they contain sufficient common elements to justify the use of a portmanteau term.

TVEI was announced in 1982, began as a pilot scheme in 1983, was extended nationally in 1987 and is due to end in 1997 by which time close on 1billion will have been spent. GNVQs were announced in 1991, began as a pilot scheme in 1992 and were extended nationally in 1993, they now dominate provision of full-time vocational education for 16-18 year olds.

Both programmes were introduced in an attempt to improve the allegedly low quality of vocational education and training which was claimed to be handicapping commerce and industry in the competitive 1980s and 1990s. At a deeper level both were grounded in the broader analysis of English culture provided by Martin Wiener (1981) and Correlli Barnett (1986) in their influential commentaries on the purported anti-industrial bias of the English and of English education. Of course, these sorts of historical and cultural critiques have themselves been subjected to sustained criticism by economic historians (Collins and Robbins, 1990; Rubinstein, 1993). However, for a time the Wiener and Barnett theses became popular among politicians and commentators, probably because a rather selective reading of them supported the attempted Thatcherite cultural and economic revolution.

Both TVEI and GNVQ were grounded in an economic and instrumental discourse in which:

Better vocational education and training = Greater individual productivity = Economic growth

They were part of an attempt to align education more closely to the 'needs' of industry and commerce and rectify some of the knowledge, skill and attitude deficits of school leavers. This type of instrumental, economic analysis remains important in political debates about education across the main political parties. There is still relatively little discussion about whether vocational education (or any form of education) should, or can, play the functional role assigned to it by the prevailing instrumental discourse within the economic system. It remains axiomatic for most politicians that education and training, if only we can get it right, will have strong and tangible economic benefits. However, from within this human capital discourse some economists of education have pointed out that establishing the relationship between education and economic development is by no means straightforward and that substantiating causal links between any particular curriculum and subsequent economic outcomes is fraught with even more difficulties. The new vocationalism has also been attacked from outside the human capital discourse. Neo-Marxists, for example, have seen the new vocationalist project as being essentially one of social control - cooling-out, occupying and reconciling potentially unruly youth to a reality of unemployment, 'schemes' and temporary employment (Bates and Riseborough, 1993; Bates, 1984). Another type of analysis sees the policy developments in terms of "symbolic action" (Kliebard, 1986) or "witchcraft" (Stronach, 1991), linked to a legitimation crisis and having for policy-makers the advantage of being seen to do 'something' about pressing economic and social problems. Outside the academic world however, these critiques of human capital arguments for the development of vocational education have had little impact and the common-sense belief that education in general, and vocational education in particular, will have an economic pay-off remains strong and continues to have a powerful influence on the education policy of the major political parties.

However, while there has been continuity in diagnosis of the alleged deficiencies which needed to be tackled there has been constant change in the specific methods and policy choices selected to tackle these deficiencies. After a 15 year period of unprecedented, feverish activity the achievements (if any) of the new vocationalist programmes remain uncertain. Still the cry goes up from politicians and employers that the British workforce is inadequately educated and trained. Still unflattering comparisons are made with our partners/competitors in Europe and further afield (Prais, 1995; Smithers, 1993). Still the search is on for a more effective system of vocational education and training.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate the validity of the analysis upon which the new vocationalism has been built, my intention here is simply to establish a strong element of continuity in the diagnosis of the 'problem' which both TVEI and GNVQ (and the other new vocationalist programmes) were designed to overcome and to suggest that both were firmly grounded in what has become a hegemonic, economic and instrumentalist discourse. This raises important questions about the extent to which this discourse places limits upon what can be achieved in practice in the programmes.

Creating a 'practical' curriculum

The second area of continuity between TVEI and GNVQ lies in the attempt to create a broad-based 'practical' curriculum. That is, one which is neither academic and discipline and content-driven in the way of A levels nor skills-driven as in the old, occupationalist vocationalism. The concept of the practical curriculum draws upon ideas of a broad or liberal vocationalism (Silver and Brennan, 1988) and takes account of the emergence of new forms of knowledge and changes in the nature of work. This version of the practical curriculum has a broad educational focus and has won support from educationalists (e.g. Chitty, 1991; Pring, 1990,; Spours and Young, 1988). It also articulates well with the Education for Capability movement launched by the RSA in the 1980s which was based on a critique of the academic curriculum and a call for a more modern, practical alternative (Burgess, 1986). Earlier antecedents for calls for a practical curriculum lay in the Crowther Report's concept of the 'alternative road' and the 'rehabilitation of the practical' (McCulloch, 1984) and in the still earlier curriculum theories of Whitehead and Dewey. Thus there is a respectable philosophical and epistemological case to be made for a practical curriculum which is neither narrowly academic nor occupationalist. However, many issues remain to be addressed concerning its detailed implementation and targeting. Assuming it was possible to begin to elaborate a practical curriculum was this to be a dimension or orientation to be embodied in all school subjects, in some subjects or would subjects as currently constructed become obsolete? Was the practical curriculum to be an essential element of the curriculum for all students at all ages or was it to be limited to certain students at particular ages? These and many other questions remain to be tackled. The history of technical schools (McCulloch, 1989; Sanderson, 1994), the development of school technology (McCulloch, Jenkins and Layton, 1985; Penfold, 1988) and the story of TVEI itself (Gleeson and McLean, 1994; Merson, 1992) show that the development of a practical curriculum is no easy task.

Progressivism in TVEI and GNVQ

The third area of continuity between TVEI and GNVQ lay in their promotion of versions of progressivism. This commitment to progressivism was evident in the TVEI Aims with their references to students "using their skills and knowledge to solve real world problems" and "developing initiative, motivation and enterprise as well as problem-solving skills and other aspects of personal development". In GNVQ the progressivism is apparent in the strong emphasis on student independence in learning in the grading criteria. Jessup (1995) states that:

A further important aspect of the GNVQ curriculum ( . . . ) is that students take greater responsibility for their own learning. This feature, valued by higher education and employers, allows the use of flexible and efficient learning modes and makes effective use of teacher time and physical resources. (p.42)

He contrasts this with what he calls the "traditional approach" which, he claims has a "much narrower focus on learning", with a frequently "didactic nature" emphasising "learning about rather than learning how to" (emphasis in the original).

Emblematic terms for this progressivism include: student-centred learning, active learning, flexible learning, the negotiated curriculum, the work-related curriculum, action planning and recording achievement all of which have featured in TVEI and/or GNVQ. In this context progressivism is closely related to the concept of the practical curriculum, which through its rejection of the transmission of both disciplinary knowledge and occupationalist skills as its basis, implies a more active role for the learner.

In some respects the persistence of elements of progressivism in the new vocationalism is surprising, coming as it does at a time when progressivism more generally has been under attack from Conservative politicians, commentators and right wing think-tanks as the source of many evils in education. In contrast to the current climate, in the 1970s and early 1980s moves to more progressive pedagogy in secondary and further education were given a degree of official and quasi-official support through HMI, local authorities and curriculum development bodies such as the Schools Council and the FEU. The evidence for actual changes in pedagogical practice in schools and colleges is patchy but there are grounds for thinking that there was a gradual and uneven shift across a range of subjects and courses towards more student-centred approaches. It was ironic that I recently heard a teacher of GNVQ Business enthuse that the course was the nearest thing she had come across in secondary education to "good primary practice" when that very practice to which she aspired has been under sustained attack and blamed for many of the alleged deficiencies of primary education. It is interesting that this shift to more student-centred methods in secondary schools and further education colleges has not aroused the ire of the traditionalists in the way progressive teaching in primary schools has done. This is perhaps because the ideology of progressive teaching at secondary and post-compulsory levels is much less well articulated and visible than is the case at primary level and also because in the 1980s much of the progressive rhetoric was related to vocational education - had independent learning been stressed in GCE A levels to the extent it has been in GNVQs I suspect a great deal more opposition to the concept and its practice would have been heard.

In recent years much of the official and quasi-official support for progressivism has been eroded. The Schools Council and the FEU have been abolished. LEA advisory services have been greatly reduced and their role redefined. HMI are much reduced in number and influence and the current HMCI has adopted a much more traditionalist line on teaching methods than his two immediate predecessors. It has only been within the context of TVEI and GNVQ that progressivism has continued to enjoy at least a degree of official sanction and even there it now sometimes seems to be the sin that dare not speak its name.

The support for a degree and version of progressivism within the new vocationalism can be partly attributed to the claims for recent economic changes from a Fordist to a post-Fordist economy. Much of the support for the new vocationalism has come from employers organisations, with the CBI in the forefront of arguing for a more modern, flexible, less academic curriculum built around the concept of core skills (CBI, 1989). Some employers, academics and commentators claim there have been important shifts in the nature of the labour market, the organisational structures of firms and actual work practices. In place of the old time-served craft workers, semi-skilled machine minders and unskilled labourers supervised by foremen and charge hands, with job demarcations jealously guarded by Luddite trade unions and acquiesced to by complacent or incompetent managers, the brave new post-Fordist world offers a vision of autonomous, flexible, motivated team workers with all the implications this entails for the curriculum. There is a good deal of disagreement on the extent of post-Fordism and upon its progressive characteristics (e.g. Avis, 1996; Brown and Lauder, 1995; Hickox and Moore, 1992; Jones and Hatcher, 1994). Some claim that these changes are deconstructing the division between mental and manual labour and opening up the possibility of work becoming a genuinely creative undertaking for far more people than was possible under Fordism. Alternative viewpoints argue that post-Fordism is far less prevalent than is claimed and that even where it exists the flexibility and autonomy of post-Fordist workers remains limited. After all another key slogan of the 1980s was 'Management's right to manage'. 'Compliant/creative workers' were required to be creative in the interests of the firm (Cathcart and Esland, 1985).

It is worth making two general points about the influence of the new vocationalist context on the practice of progressivism. Firstly it had a redefining and attenuating effect. Some writers have argued that within the new vocationalism the expressive and the personal, which were key elements within progressivism as defined prior to the new vocationalism, were repackaged as instrumental social and life skills and personal development plans (Chitty, 1991; Jordan, 1996). Within the new vocationalist progressivism there was also a tangible ideological selectivity, a favouring of employer and business interests, which reflected the increasingly privileged place which business occupies within education. Where SCIP, for example, adopted a quasi-sociological approach to the study of industry and gave roughly equal weighting to employers and trade unions, in the 1980s and into the 1990s the interests of the former were very much in the ascendancy in organisations such as TECs and EBPs. The ideological selectivity of the progressivism promoted by the new vocationalism was particularly evident in business courses (Williams and Yeomans, 1994a) but was also apparent in other courses both within TVEI and GNVQ. This was evident not so much through any crude proselytising of business ethics and practices as in the absence of any critique of these or of the framework within which activities took place.

However, it is important not to succumb to a 'golden ageism' in which pre-new vocationalist progressivism is set up as some sort of ideal paradigm against which all other versions must be measured. The progressivism associated with primary education, especially since Plowden, was also attenuated by its emphasis on the aesthetic, the expressive and the personal. Indeed Dale (1988) argues that one of the defining features of this version of progressivism was its anti-industrialism while Sharp and Green (1975) famously criticised progressive primary education as quietist, passive and ultimately conservative. Therefore if new vocationalist progressivism could be seen in some respects as subverting and sullying the 'progressive' it also had the potential to correct some of the weaknesses of the older pastoral, Plowdenesque version by bringing precisely those elements of social and economic life which had been neglected - the economy, the workplace, the experience of work, within the ambit of progressivism (although the important pioneering work of SCIP should not be forgotten in this respect) although how it then dealt with those elements remained problematic and subject to constraints.

Crucially, the practice of progressivism within the new vocationalism in schools and colleges was mediated by the characteristics of individual programmes and of the particular sites within which it was enacted. Thus there were great variations in the degree and directions in which the progressivism was attenuated across schools, colleges and courses. For example, there was scope for teachers and institutions to maintain or develop more radical, critical approaches to the study of the economy and the workplace through progressive methods. Such approaches could often draw upon implicit knowledge held by students who were often only too well aware through personal, family or community experience that the workplace was not always such a benign environment as it was often portrayed in the new vocationalism (e.g. Shilling, 1989). In the next section of the paper I compare and contrast the degree of scope for such reinterpretation allowed by TVEI and GNVQ.


Having argued that there were broad areas of policy and practice in which at least of degree of continuity could be discerned between TVEI and GNVQ I now want to look at seven dimensions in which the discontinuities were considerably greater than the continuities. These are summarised in the following tables and expanded below.





Political origins - Young and Tebbit with acquiescence from Joseph. Little or no contribution from officials or education professionals.

Political/Industrial/Professional origins - details and motivations still uncertain but key role for CBI and NCVQ. Limited 'heavyweight' political contributions.


Broad, vague curriculum guidelines drawn up by civil servants and endorsed by National Steering Group. No explicit curriculum model.

Based on existing well articulated competence-based curriculum model with strong, evangelical supporters with NCVQ.


Curriculum-led around broad guidelines. Relatively little emphasis on assessment, worked within existing GCSE, GCE, BTEC and ROA systems.

Assessment-led. Derived from competence-based model; curricular experiences and pedagogical strategies flowed from assessment targets. Weakening of this stance for GNVQ with greater explicit attention to curriculum content and pedagogy.


Promoted extended teacher professionalism through involvement of teachers in curriculum design and innovation via local curriculum development groups, development of GCSE Mode 3 syllabuses, etc.

More restricted role for teachers. Syllabuses designed centrally and specified in some detail through performance criteria, range statements and evidence indicators (cf. National Curriculum). Title 'teacher' originally resisted by NCVQ in favour of 'assessor'.






Strong emphasis on consortia/collaboration and key role for LEAs as managers of TVEI projects.

Little or no emphasis on consortia/collaboration and severely limited role for LEAs. Later attempts to develop practitioner networks through NCVQ, FEDA and awarding bodies.


Attempting broad-based change especially in the Extension where the explicit aim was to wield influence right across the curriculum. Supported moves to a less differentiated, more common curriculum 16-19.

More restricted change focus - a group of courses rather than a cross-curricular programme. Acceptance of multi-track system with tracks relatively well insulated from each other. No intention to effect change outside the GNVQ arena e.g. in A level courses.


Curriculum change through bribery - LEAs could take or leave TVEI, but there was lavish funding (in the pilot phase) for those who participated.

Curriculum change through coercion - via powers in 1988 Act under which Secretary of State could disallow courses not approved by NCVQ hence virtual mandatory replacement of BTEC, C&G, RSA courses by GNVQ

Political and institutional origins

The origins of TVEI are now reasonably well known through the publication of various insider accounts (Curtis, 1993; Young, 1990). TVEI was a political intervention born of the ambition of David Young, the opportunistic exploitation of surplus funds in the MSC and legislative oversight which opened up the possibility of the Commission founding its own schools. In his account of the "Dawn Raid on Education" Young glories in the exclusion of officials and education professionals both at the centre and in the LEAs from the founding of TVEI (Young, 1990). However, while the political origins and character of TVEI initially gained the innovation a high profile and enviable levels of finance it also meant that it was susceptible to shifts in party politics. Once its principal political sponsors Young and Tebbit left the Employment Department, and subsequently the government, it lost its clout in the political arena. Their successors at the ED showed little interest in TVEI and with the resurgence of the DES under Kenneth Baker it became increasingly marginalised. The almost total neglect of the role of TVEI in the DES (1987) discussion paper which introduced the National Curriculum was in many ways a seminal moment, almost from that time TVEI was on the defensive, trying to carve a niche for itself in the new dispensation.

The origins of GNVQ are more problematic and much still remains to be known. There was a complex interplay of political, industrial and professional forces involved in their birth. GNVQs appear to have had their origins in CBI dissatisfaction with the narrowness of NVQs. This was communicated to, and taken up by, ministers and became part of a general feeling that something (more) needed to be done to improve vocational education and training. The NCVQ was an obvious conduit for these concerns. It is unclear as to how far the NCVQ welcomed this intrusion. On the one hand the development of some form of general vocational qualifications would likely mean some compromise of the competence-based approach developed for NVQs, on the other given the difficulties and slow take-up of NVQs expansion into a captive and potentially lucrative market would not have been unattractive. Possibly there were divisions within NCVQ on these matters. Sir Bryan Nicholson who was at the CBI, and later became chairman of NCVQ, appears to have been a key figure in promoting broader-based vocational qualifications together with Tim Eggar then Minister of State at the DFE. However, in contrast to TVEI, GNVQs have been not so much associated with individual politicians as with the NCVQ as an institution. It remains to be seen what implications the merger of NCVQ and SCAA will have for GNVQs. The important point in the context of this paper is that once the NCVQ had taken on what became GNVQ they had a ready made curriculum and assessment model to hand which was already in use for NVQs and which, according to its chief architect, was applicable to all forms of education and training at all levels (Jessup, 1991).

Curricular origins

The differing political and institutional origins of the two programmes had a profound impact on the ways in which they developed. TVEI was from the beginning vague and generalised in curricular terms, centring upon notions such as practicality and relevance. While the Initiative aroused much early hostility this derived largely from its origins in the MSC, its mode of operation through categorical funding and suspicions that it was an attempt to undermine comprehensive education through being targeted only at some students in some schools, leading to fears that it would introduce a 'secondary modern' or 'technical' stream within comprehensive schools (a suspicion fostered by some of the early comments made by Young and Tebbit). The TVEI Aims and Criteria however, were unexceptional in their general, vague intentions. Indeed, as noted earlier, rather surprisingly they contained some 'progressive' elements. In their ambiguity the aims and criteria embodied some of the uncertainties implicit in the new vocationalism. This was stronger in its rejection of both academic education and 'old' vocationalism than in its formulation of an alternative. As Chitty (1991) has argued whereas occupationalism involved training for specific jobs, the new vocationalism was about preparation for work in general, a function which would be widely accepted as one of the aims of general education. Thus it was unsurprising that the distinction between the new vocationalism and general education, particularly in its progressive mode, became increasingly blurred. Consequently, there was in TVEI from its inception great potential for the Initiative to be re-made in practice and an important part of the TVEI story, attested to by many studies (e.g. Dale, 1990; Gleeson and McLean, 1994; Hopkins, 1990) is of its remaking in the local authorities, colleges, schools and classrooms where it was implemented. TVEI was never a curriculum, it provided a set of aims and criteria which were sufficiently elastic to allow a wide variety of curricula to be constructed and legitimated under its auspices.

GNVQ was quite different. It emerged in a much more specific and concrete form from the NCVQ which was already responsible for the development of NVQs. GNVQs drew strongly upon the theory and practice of competence-based education and training. There is now a fairly substantial literature debating the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to curriculum and assessment (e.g. Hodkinson and Issitt, 1995; Hyland, 1994; Tomlinson, 1995) and it is not my intention to rehearse the arguments here but simply to make the point that GNVQ in a concrete form emerged from a professional and educational discourse which was quite different to the largely political one which gave birth to TVEI. The language of the professional advocates of NVQs and GNVQs contained a sort of evangelism particularly evident in Jessup's (1995) claim that the NVQ model is applicable across the board in education and training. Jessup also argues that while some characteristics of GNVQs are marginal and may be modified there are others which are fundamental and therefore should not be changed. There was nothing equivalent to this level of theoretical and epistemological prescriptiveness present in TVEI. Indeed once Young and others had mobilised political support and financial resources TVEI had to be invented in the LEAs, schools and colleges almost from scratch and within unprecedently short time scales. Of course, despite the best efforts of Jessup and others what should count as the 'fundamental' features of GNVQ has been contested as the qualification has come under increasing pressure to establish itself in the 16-19 curriculum and justify its claim to parity of esteem with academic qualifications. As the story of the National Curriculum has shown the curriculum as prescription is unlikely to be able to survive unscathed the collision with the curriculum as praxis.

Mode of curricular operation

The third area of discontinuity between TVEI and GNVQ follows closely from the second. Although GNVQ embodied a concrete curriculum model it was first and foremost an assessment-led innovation. Early elaborations of the competence-based model consciously avoided reference to curriculum content and pedagogy - all that was specified was what counted as competent performance, how students got to that point, what underlying knowledge they acquired and how long it took them to achieve competence were considered irrelevant. The title 'teacher' was also avoided in preference to 'assessor'. However, later formulations of the model, particularly with respect to GNVQ, have begun to give much more attention to curriculum content, underlying knowledge and teaching methods. This drift away from the classical competence-based model has probably come about both because of the inherent difficulties of its application to broad vocational areas and as a result of the implementation of GNVQs in schools and colleges by teachers, in contrast to NVQs which were designed to be implemented in workplaces by assessors. It has also resulted from attempts to respond to criticism of 'lack or rigour' in GNVQs (e.g. Smithers, 1993; 1994). However, despite the drift of GNVQs towards a more recognisably educational model they remain assessment-led. This is evident in the inordinate amount of time given over to assessment issues and practices at all levels of the system. This emphasis (many would say over emphasis) on a particular form of criterion-referenced, quasi-mastery assessment makes GNVQ an archetypically late 1980s/early 1990s innovation. During this period curriculum policy has been largely assessment-led with assessment scores seen as powerful tools in making schools and colleges more 'accountable' to their local communities and responsive to the 'market' (local community and market usually being taken as synonymous) and as a lever to change teaching and learning practices.

TVEI, by contrast, was very much curriculum-led and as we have seen the curriculum which it proposed was sketched in the broadest of terms. I will consider the ways in which it was actually developed in the next sub-section but suffice it to say here that the most common mode of development was to start with sets of experiences, skills, values or attitudes and bodies of knowledge which students were thought to require and consider ways in which these might be developed. Assessment was normally a later consideration. TVEI was never a course, still less a qualification, there was no distinctive TVEI assessment system and characteristically the Initiative deployed existing developments such as records of achievement and GCE/CSE (later GCSE) Mode 3 arrangements in order to assess the curricular experiences which were developed. Some of these TVEI-originated courses did represent a move towards greater criterion referencing but this reflected changes within the examination system around the time just before and after GCSE was introduced. This was a trend which TVEI went along with rather than one which it originated or promoted, although the move to criterion-referencing sat comfortably with TVEI progressivism. In its focus on curriculum rather than assessment TVEI looked back to the curriculum development approaches and projects of the 1960s and 1970s rather than forwards to the assessment dominated programmes of the late 1980s and 1990s. This concept of TVEI as a transitional phenomena is one I shall return to below.

Mode of curriculum development

The ways in which curricula were developed in the two programmes were to a large extent determined by the characteristics outlined earlier in this section. In TVEI a substantial amount of development was undertaken by teachers at local level. Typically a TVEI proposal would be drawn up by LEA officers and headteachers sketching the proposed curriculum developments in broad terms, but the translation of these into concrete curricula proposals was carried out by teachers. Often, at least initially, this involved adopting existing examination syllabuses, but there was also a good deal of original curriculum development frequently involving panels of teachers drawn from participating schools and colleges (Bridgwood, 1996). The more flexible examining regime which was still available in the early days of TVEI allowed practitioners to negotiate the development of new syllabuses with GCE, CSE, GCSE and some of the vocational awarding boards. There was also a great deal of development work in areas such as recording achievement, careers advice and guidance and work experience which was often not dependent upon examination board certification. Much of the development work in TVEI shared characteristics with the school-based curriculum development supported by the Schools Council and other bodies in the second half of the 1970s. Notions of ownership, participation and extended professionality among teachers were stressed. On the other hand this mode of development also exhibited the weaknesses identified by Hargreaves (1989) and Ruddock (1986) as being associated with school-centred innovation of insularity, lack of theoretical development and the absence of sustained evaluation and critique.

The contrast with the mode of development of GNVQs hardly needs to be laboured. Here teachers are cast in the role of technicians 'delivering' a curriculum designed elsewhere and in this again GNVQ is a typical late 1980s/early 1990s innovation. The GNVQ specifications (syllabuses) emerge from the NCVQ and the awarding bodies. Practitioners feel they have little control over them or understanding of the processes by which they are produced. The frequently voiced complaints about the opacity and jargon-ridden language of GNVQs are indicative of the ways in which the qualifications were developed. When I began our research on GNVQs the substantially revised specifications for 1995/96 were just becoming available and there was a scramble among teachers to get hold of them which was very reminiscent of the reactions of some teachers in the late 1980s when the various versions of the National Curriculum orders emerged from the working groups and the NCC.

Collaboration and consortia working

Reference has already been made to the ways in which TVEI curricula were often developed at local level by groups of teachers. This was part of a broader emphasis within the Initiative on collaborative and consortia working within which LEAs had a key role (Bridgwood, 1996). The central role accorded to LEAs in TVEI is another of its contradictory features, coming at a time when the general thrust of Conservative government policy in many areas of social policy has been to denude local government of many of its responsibilities. In education this has taken the form of the removal of the former polytechnics and sixth form and further education colleges from LEA control, the promotion of grant-maintained schools and limits on the proportion of funds which may be held centrally by authorities. In TVEI, by contrast, the LEAs were the contracting authorities and were expected by the MSC to play an active role in managing projects and encouraging collaboration among the participating institutions. TVEI Extension proposals were commonly turned down by the MSC because the Commission was not satisfied that the LEA was taking a sufficiently active managerial role. Several LEAs which had historically been non-interventionist and allowed their schools and colleges a good deal of autonomy were 'encouraged' to take a more active role.

Until 1995/96 there was little or no emphasis on collaborative or consortia working in GNVQ. As a consequence of the changes brought about by educational legislation since 1988, especially LMS, opting-out and the incorporation of colleges, the active, managerial role for LEAs promoted by TVEI is no longer viable. Schools and colleges have now been placed in a more competitive relationship and collaboration has become difficult (Higham, Sharp and Yeomans, 1996; Schagen, Johnson and Simkin, 1996). The three vocational awarding bodies currently allowed to offer GNVQs are also in a competitive situation. The absence of collaboration and the decline in LEA support and advisory service has contributed to a sense of isolation and uncertainty among GNVQ teachers, perhaps particularly in smaller institutions, and among those with less experience of vocational courses. Teachers are anxious about the ways in which they are implementing GNVQs and particularly whether the 'standards' which they are applying to students work are correct. Despite the competitive context, collaboration does take place in some local contexts and at some levels and is sought and welcomed by many staff. In 1995/96 NCVQ, FEDA and the awarding bodies began to promote an increase in networking and collaboration in relation to GNVQs. In large part this seems to have been a response to the concerns of practitioners and the often bad press received by GNVQs. The NCVQ has been under pressure to address concerns about standards of achievement in GNVQ, aspects of the assessment system, particularly the grading of portfolios and more general insecurities concerning implementation. However, it remains to be seen how far these nascent attempts at greater collaboration can be sustained and how significant they will be in the whole scheme of GNVQ.

Scope of curricular change

GNVQs operate within the context of the government's favoured multi-track system of 16-19 education (Dearing, 1995). As a result their curricular scope is necessarily limited and is aimed at providing a general vocational track alongside A levels and NVQs. In terms of curricular influence the three tracks are not completely insulated and GNVQs have been affected by each of the other two tracks. From NVQs they have acquired a common structure, a similar language and an emphasis on outcomes (although not necessarily competencies). They have been linked to A levels through the explicit attempt to achieve 'parity of esteem'. Some researchers have claimed that the explicit equivalencies claimed with A level have led to GNVQs becoming more educational or, more pejoratively, 'academicised' (FEDA, 1995). It is significant that the achievement of parity of esteem is usually perceived as requiring GNVQs to move closer to A levels rather than being the other way round or through some process of mutual adaptation (although this does not preclude the flow of influence from GNVQ to A level at the level of the school or college, department or individual teacher).

In contrast TVEI, particularly in its extension phase, attempted to influence the whole curriculum. In relation to the 16-19 curriculum there was an intention to affect both A levels themselves and the broader curriculum of A level students by, for example, promoting core curricula in schools and colleges. TVEI also promoted common core skills across academic and vocational courses and through this sought to bridge the academic-vocational divide. Thus, where GNVQ was part of an attempt to establish three relatively clearly demarcated curricular post-16 tracks, TVEI attempted on a localised basis and with limited success to reduce the strength of the boundaries between different tracks. TVEI promoted a more comprehensive version of post-16 curriculum, while GNVQ was based upon essentially differentiated provision, although with the intention of establishing 'parity of esteem' between the different pathways.

Method of curriculum change

Finally the two programmes differed in the ways they attempted to bring about the changes to which they were committed. TVEI was curriculum change by bribery. In the early days the MSC laid much emphasis upon its voluntaristic character and the numbers of LEAs agreeing to participate was cited as evidence of success. This overstated the degree of real choice open to LEAs at a time when TVEI was virtually the only source of major additional funding. Some have argued that TVEI's use of funding and contractual arrangements to force change was an important extension of Thatcherite enterprise values into education and represented the most important TVEI effect (Dale, 1990). However, the imprecision of the contract and the relative laxity in its monitoring (Williams and Yeomans, 1994b) cast doubt on whether TVEI was really more successful at bringing about top-down desired change in comparison to the well-documented failures of earlier 'top-down' or 'centre-periphery' approaches to curriculum change (Fiddy and Stronach, 1987; Fullan, 1991; MacDonald and Walker, 1976). For its supporters within education TVEI was an example of what could be achieved if only schools and colleges were given resources and support. Paul Black (1992), for example, has described TVEI as an "outstanding success" which brought about an "extraordinary flowering of curriculum thinking and implementation". An optimistic evaluation of its model of curriculum change would be that it embodied a fruitful combination of centralised and decentralised methods and provided both pressure and support for change (see Fullan, 1993 for an explication of this approach to curriculum change) .

GNVQ was much more directly coercive in its mode of introduction. While the content of individual GNVQs was not laid down in parliamentary orders as was the case with National Curriculum subjects, section 24 of the 1988 Education Act gave the Secretary of State powers to regulate provision for full-time students over the age of 16. It was made clear that these powers would be used to ensure that approval would only be given to qualifications compatible with the NVQ/GNVQ framework. While there have been some deviations from this position, the general message to awarding bodies and centres has been that if they wished to offer full-time vocational courses post-16 these would have to be approved by NCVQ and would have to be either NVQs or GNVQs. Thus claims for the success of GNVQs because of their large uptake are somewhat disingenuous since a high proportion of the uptake was accounted for by the replacement of existing BTEC, RSA and City and Guilds courses. This reinforces the point that the introduction of GNVQs was essentially a top-down initiative. This is not to say that they were an unwelcome imposition everywhere, some centres and staff embraced them willingly, but it does indicate the strong element of coercion involved in GNVQ implementation.


I argued above that TVEI and GNVQ shared certain broad aims derived from a common diagnosis of the alleged deficiencies of vocational education and were targeted at partially over-lapping groups of students although in operational terms they were very different. In addition they shared another characteristic emblematic of current educational policy-making. Both programmes suffered from what Goodson (1994) has called 'historical amnesia'. Leaving aside much broader historical questions concerned with earlier attempts to promote and reform vocational education even within the more limited ambit of curriculum studies there are lessons which could have been learned. In relation to GNVQs, much of the debate about the curriculum and assessment model echoes issues around the use of curriculum objectives rehearsed by Bloom, Eisner, Stenhouse and others from the 1950s into the 1980s (see Hamilton, 1977 for a discussion of some of these issues). And yet GNVQs have been constructed as if the cogent criticisms made of objectives-based curricula mounted by Stenhouse and others had never existed, . We have seen that GNVQs were theoretically informed by notions of competence or outcome-based learning which when adapted and applied to GNVQ resulted in a curriculum containing several hundred objectives (performance criteria) for each course. Whatever the theoretical justifications for this model even a minimal engagement with the literature on curriculum development and change would have warned the architects of GNVQ that teachers would find this approach indigestible. Thus GNVQ while it was underpinned by a learning theory did not take adequate account of other sorts of theories and empirical findings about how teachers teach, students learn, colleges and schools are organised and curricula are changed. Of course there are many experienced, capable and conscientious teachers who have laboured to make GNVQs 'work' for their students. But the success which has been achieved with GNVQs is in spite of, rather than because of, their curriculum and assessment structure. A greater appreciation of the practical, pragmatic and socially-constructed character of curriculum would surely have paid dividends.

TVEI, in contrast, did not draw upon an explicit theory of learning and assessment. In its rhetoric and practice it came to embody certain principles and procedures of curriculum development and change. It invoked soft, liberal ideas of ownership, participation and partnership, although these were yoked together rather uncomfortably with much harder notions such as accountability, performance indicators and contractual obligations. However, despite a much greater sensitivity to local and institutional contexts TVEI was also ahistorical in its approach to curriculum change. Those steering the Initiative could with profit have looked back to the 1970s when the Schools Council and some local authorities attempted decentralised, school-based curriculum development. While the effects of those strategies are difficult to evaluate by virtue of their localised character criticisms by Hargreaves (1989)and Ruddock (1986) contained much relating to the insularity and lack of systematic development and dissemination of school-based curriculum development which might have been made use of by those running TVEI.

Both GNVQ and TVEI were obsessed with establishing their newness and the ways in which they broke with the past. Some of the advocates of GNVQ, for example, give the impression that there was no vocational education worth speaking about prior to GNVQ, completely ignoring successful, highly regarded courses offered by awarding bodies such as BTEC. Also, in researching GNVQ, I am often struck by how little reference is made to TVEI experiences and methods and by the limited overlap in personnel. The advisers, consultants and administrators who ran TVEI nationally, regionally and locally are notable by their absence from GNVQ. This ahistoricism and hyperactivity in educational policy-making appears to be an effect of its increased politicisation, with the emphasis on innovations and initiatives which, in order to gain kudos within policy-making arenas, have to be presented as ground-breaking solutions to long-standing problems rather than building on and learning from established programmes. For ambitious policy-makers there is little glory in incrementalism.

Let me now end the paper with some final reflections on TVEI and GNVQ. I have argued that the high profile political origins of TVEI left a curricular vacuum which was filled in a wide variety of ways depending upon local circumstances. GNVQ, in contrast, was much more tightly drawn, being based upon a clearly articulated, if controversial, curriculum and assessment model. Comparison of the two programmes is indicative of changes in national curriculum policy. While TVEI through its vocationalism, its endorsement of the enterprise culture and its attempt to control school and college curricula through categorical funding (Jordan, 1996) clearly foreshadowed other elements of Conservative education policy, in its mode of operation and particularly the central roles accorded to LEAs and teachers it looked backwards to the 1960s and 1970s, to the era of 'partnership' and teacher professionalism. Thus TVEI was a transitional phenomena rather than a full-blooded part of the 'New Right' agenda developed powerfully in the third Thatcher term. GNVQs in contrast were very much part of that era, bringing central control and prescription to a previously largely unregulated curriculum arena. GNVQs (and NVQs) attempted to become a de facto national vocational curriculum and many of the difficulties associated with the pre-16 National Curriculum reappeared in somewhat different forms in relation to GNVQ/NVQs

These different origins and modes of operation had important implications for the general approach to curriculum construction and change and to the role of the teacher within each of the programmes. The TVEI approach had both notable strengths and weaknesses. Its approach to curriculum development while producing some remarkable blunders and waste of public funds3 also promoted some stimulating developments. In some of the classrooms I visited over ten years ago as part of the National Evaluation of the TVEI Curriculum4 students and teachers exhibited a palpable sense of excitement and achievement. During a follow-up study some five or six years later when I asked teachers to look back on their TVEI experience a small but significant minority referred to the those early days as their most stimulating and fulfilling time in teaching.

TVEI might be criticised for the vagueness and generality of its aims and criteria. However I suggest this ambiguity was a positive advantage, not just in the political sense that it allowed disparate groups and individuals to cleave to the Initiative, but because it acknowledged (albeit initially unintentionally) that curricula do not spring fully-formed into practice. TVEI encouraged curriculum construction as a practical, multi-faceted, multi-level activity involving constant adaptation, modification and reconceptualisation. TVEI was groping towards some middle ground in strategies of curriculum change between central prescription and decentralised, school-based approaches. In some ways the Initiative embodied Fullan's (1993) advocacy of a judicious mix of support plus pressure for achieving curriculum change.

However, all too often so much of the outstanding work which was achieved in TVEI remained localised, insular, unsystematised and untheorised. TVEI was a sort of curriculum workshop which produced a few real jewels. And yet the craft knowledge which produced these gems filtered away. In retrospect TVEI produced a lot of turbulence, some excitement and some excellent practice but its lasting impact in curricular terms has been rather limited. TVEI was possibly a real opportunity to begin to theorise and formulate Crowther's 'alternative road' or Dewey's 'liberal vocationalism'. But this seems now to have been lost.

Fullan's model begs the question of what is a judicious mix of support and pressure? What is the optimum balance between central prescription (or guidance) and local practice? Where should top-down meet bottom-up? TVEI had the potential to help to clarify and explore these questions. However, any role it might have had in this respect was fatally undermined by a national shift in policy towards much more prescriptive and centralised approaches to curriculum construction signalled by the 1988 Education Act. While TVEI remains of considerable interest to curriculum historians and theorists, in terms of educational practice it is already confined to history and its potential to influence current events is negligible.

GNVQ was very much rooted in the post-1988 model of curriculum development and change. In common with other developments from that period GNVQ has been beset by implementation difficulties as attested to by several reports (FEDA, 1995; OFSTED, 1993; 1994; 1996). The qualification has been regularly modified since its introduction in 1992 and further changes are in the pipeline in the wake of the Capey Review (NCVQ, 1995). Despite these difficulties GNVQ has its success stories and is being made to 'work' at some level, students are completing courses and some are going into jobs or higher education. Further changes are being made with the emphasis upon a simplification of the GNVQ syllabuses, accompanied by more external assessment. There have also been attempts to develop the sort of networking and collaborative development work which was a positive feature of TVEI. Of course, the context for these collaborative endeavours is very different with the incorporation of colleges, opting-out of schools, LMS and formula funding and it remains to be seen how successfully collaborative ventures can be promoted within this competitive environment.

This paper has provided a selective and inevitably simplified history of the development of full-time vocational education for 16-19 years olds over the last decade and a half through an analysis and comparison of GNVQ and TVEI. Much has been left out, particularly the development and subsequent demise or decline of a whole range of courses including CPVE, DVE and BTEC First and National Diploma's which would need to be accounted for in any comprehensive curriculum history of the period. Despite these limitations the paper illustrates some of the shifts both in the ways in which policy on vocational education has been formulated and in its modes of operation. The construction of Crowther's 'alternative road' in curriculum between the academic (A level) and occupationalist (NVQ) routes remains elusive, the 'practical' is still waiting to be 'rehabilitated'. It may be, as some have argued (Finegold, 1990; Young, 1993), that while the academic/vocational split in curriculum remains this aspiration will be unrealisable and that neither a TVEI nor a GNVQ-type approach will deliver the desired results.


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ISBN 0 900960 87 6
(c) D J Yeomans 1996

The Post-14 Research Group

Post-14 education and training has been the site of intense policy debate and change for over two decades both in Britain and throughout the world. These changes have led to substantial re-organisation of forms of governance, organisation, curricula and pedagogy and have had major implications for the lives of young people, mature students and adult learners.

The Post-14 Research Group, a unit of the University of Leeds School of Education, has interests in the analysis of these changes across: secondary education, further and higher education; workplace and lifelong learning; and youth training. Methodological approaches draw upon: curriculum study; policy analysis and evaluation; historical and sociological research; and youth ethnography. Research has been supported by extensive ESRC and Government funding, together with grants from a variety of educational foundations, regional bodies and local education authorities.

External and internal seminar series act as a focus for discussion both within the School and region and this Occasional Publications series publishes recent research by group members:

No. 1 D. J. Yeomans, Constructing Vocational Education: from TVEI to GNVQ (1996)

No. 2 J. J. S. Higham, Breadth in the Post-16 Academic Curriculum (1996)

No. 3 I. M. H. Bates, The Competence and Outcomes Movement: the landscape of research (1997)

No. 4 J.J.S. Higham, GCE A Levels in the School Curriculum (1997)

No. 5 P. R. Sharp, The Development of the Vocational Curriculum for 16-19 Year-Olds in Colleges and Schools, 1979-1995 (1997)

No. 6 J. J. S. Higham, The Post-16 Core Curriculum (1997)

No. 7 I.M.H. Bates, Problematizing 'Empowerment' in Education and Work: an Exploration of the GNVQ (1998)

No. 8 M. Priestley and J. J. S. Higham, New Zealand's Curriculum and Assessment Revolution (1999)

No. 9 J. J. S. Higham, P. R. Sharp and D. Machin,
The Monitoring of Academic Progress 16-19 (2000)

No. 10 P. R. Sharp, J. J. S. Higham, D. J. Yeomans and D. M. Daniel, Working Together: the independent/state school partnerships scheme (2001)

No. 11 J. J. S. Higham, Curriculum Change: General National Vocational Qualifications (2002)

Paper copies of the above publications are available from the address below at a
cost of 5 including postage and packing. Please make cheques payable to
'The University of Leeds'.

The Secretary
The Post-14 Research Group
School of Education
University of Leeds
Leeds LS2 9JT
Tel: 0113 343 4659
Fax: 0113 343 4541


1. The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The work was funded by ESRC award numbers R00023 2568 and R00023 5911

2. I gratefully acknowledge the support and assistance of my colleagues Jeremy Higham, Paul Sharp and Ralph Williams all of the School of Education, University of Leeds, with whom I worked on the ESRC-funded and other research and evaluation projects upon which this paper draws.

3. Space restrictions prevent detailed exemplification but examples included: the purchase of computer controlled lathes which were never used; pneumatics equipment which five years later was described as being 'rusted to the walls' in a workshop; expensive and inappropriate computers which could neither be maintained nor were compatible with other computers in a school; whole TVEI schemes involving particular forms of ill-conceived consortia arrangements which were subsequently described as having collapsed.

4. The National Evaluation of the TVEI Curriculum Project was conducted in the School of Education, University of Leeds between 1985 and 1988.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 16 October 2002