It looks like a bold decision. An exam board affected by controversy over the use of vocational courses to help schools rise up league tables is about to open up its data for full media scrutiny. Edexcel is to hold a national results day in July, Education Guardian can reveal, when detailed statistics on hundreds of thousands of pupils' achievements in its increasingly popular BTec courses, which under Labour were controversially given equivalence to GCSE and A-levels in the rankings, will be published. The publication plans aim to mirror the format of GCSE and A-level results days in August, which have become a staple of the annual news cycle and provoke now ritualised debates over rising and falling standards. The board's decision, which may raise the profile of BTecs, represents an attempt by Edexcel to take the initiative in the ongoing and often bitterly contested publicity battle over vocational courses. Last week's report on the subject for the government by Professor Alison Wolf, of King's College, London, said that league table pressures were pushing schools to encourage pupils to take non-GCSE courses that were of questionable worth to their futures, because of the qualifications' value to the school's statistics. This, she said, was "immoral". Michael Gove, the education secretary, in the forward to the Wolf report said league tables incentivised schools to offer "inadequate" qualifications to 14- to 16-year-olds, although he did not name such qualifications and Edexcel can point to research suggesting that BTecs increase people's long-term earnings. BTecs, coursework-only qualifications, which are offered at four levels in subjects ranging from applied science to health and social care, have been one of the fastest growing syllabuses in their GCSE-equivalent form. BTec Firsts, taken by 562,086 students, mainly aged 14 to 16, last year, have more than doubled in popularity over the past three years. This has been triggered, it is widely claimed, by a system that deems them to be worth up to four GCSEs for league table purposes. Statistics published in the Wolf report showed that the contribution of BTec Firsts to national results figures for 16-year-olds, which incorporate both GCSE grades and results achieved in vocational qualifications, has been surging. National figures for 2010 showed that 75% of 16-year-olds gained five or more A*-C grades at GCSE or vocational equivalent. Without BTecs, the figure would have been 65%, meaning these non-GCSE courses contributed 10 percentage points to this overall figure, compared to only 0.1 percentage points in 2005. BTec Firsts were the largest contributor to the national figures after GCSE. The more advanced BTec Nationals, for 16- to 18-year-olds, which have a more established following in colleges and sixth forms, had 216,875 entries last year. Edexcel's move is an attempt to redress another long-standing criticism around non-mainstream academic qualifications: that while GCSE and A-level grade data is available and scrutinised by the media every year, it has been impossible to gain similar information on other qualifications taken in schools and colleges. There have been anecdotal claims that very high percentages of students pass GCSE-equivalent BTecs and another set of non-GCSE courses, OCR Nationals, run by the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts board. Data revealed to the Times Educational Supplement last summer showed BTec First pass rates running at around 80%, although the same data was not made available for OCR Nationals. In July, Edexcel will not only make information on BTec pass rates available in individual subjects, but also the proportion of entries awarded a merit or distinction grade; the relative popularity and success rates of individual subjects among boys, and among girls; and a breakdown of statistics by regions across the UK. The data is to be released on the same day as the board announces the winners of a new awards scheme recognising outstanding BTec students, teachers and schools/colleges. Entries for these awards open today. In recent years, the education charity Edge has run a national "VQ" (vocational qualifications) day in June, which celebrates successful non-academic learning. However, sceptics have said the fact that VQ day does not release detailed results data diminishes its impact on national reporting. Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, which runs Edexcel, says: "We think it's high time that learners who are doing really valuable vocational qualifications like BTec are recognised for the excellence they achieve. "We need an evidence-based debate, to try to discourage some of the snobbery that there is around vocational learning and vocational qualifications, and it's really important that we provide transparency." The board acknowledges that the publicity the results day will generate may well be double-edged. GCSE and A-level results are certainly high profile, but the debate over "dumbing down" that ensues every summer is dispiriting for many young people.
However, sources at Edexcel say the board can no longer stand by a lack of transparency over BTec results, especially given the coalition's stated commitment to being open with data. Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education at the Civitas thinktank, who has criticised schools' use of vocational qualifications, says: "This is welcome, not least because it is transparency that really is desperately needed when it comes to particular vocational qualifications taken in schools. "The way the statistics have worked in the past, different qualifications have got bundled up in one measure so that it's been very difficult to find out what it means." Alan Smithers, director of Buckingham University's centre for education and employment research, says he has struggled in the past to obtain BTec data from Edexcel. He says: "People are not aware of these qualifications in the way they should be. So anything that puts data in the public domain has to be a good thing." The OCR board awarded 250,000 grades at GCSE equivalent last year through its OCR National vocational courses. But it appears to have no plans for a similar day, and pass/merit/distinction figures for these courses still seem not to be available to the public. "OCR celebrates the achievement of all its students when they receive an award rather than picking out a few at a random point in the calendar. We congratulate Pearson/Edexcel on raising the profile of all vocational qualifications during the academic exam season."
Whether Edexcel's move towards transparency will be followed by other awarding bodies, then, remains to be seen. But, given reporters' general enthusiasm for statistics, it seems likely to generate media interest.