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Another fine mess for Sir Ron to fix

My eye was caught by an advertisement for the chairman of the proposed Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority. On offer is about Pounds 55,000 a year for a three-day week to establish the policies, be the principal point of contact for ministers, and represent the body publicly. (Closing date November 18, in case you are interested).

The regulation of qualifications seems to be moving forward. You may remember Sir Ron Dearing in his review offered two options: one body instead of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and National Council for Vocational Qualifications, or two with a split at 14-plus. The Government formally consulted, making it clear that its preference was for a single body, and on the basis of about 75 votes to 25 has gone ahead. After a little difficulty with acronyms (originally QUACC, I believe), QNCA was conceived.

Its immediate task, assuming it receives parliamentary approval, will be to drive forward the recommendations of the Dearing, Beaumont and Capey reports. This is an enormous undertaking. It will have to come up with a qualifications framework for young people and adults (with higher education no longer excluded) which embraces the three types of learning identified by Dearing - subjects and disciplines, applied learning, occupational training - and the relationships between them.

QNCA will also have to clear up the mess left by NCVQ. This is the body, which in developing vocational qualifications decided to do away with syllabuses, courses and training programmes, and reliability in assessment, and replace them with evidence-gathering in relation to hundreds of performance criteria. A decade later with more than Pounds 107 million of public money spent we not only have the confusion that vocational reform was intended to sort out, but adding to it we have national vocational qualifications and general national vocational qualifications.

NVQs have become "niche vocational qualifications" suitable, if anything, for assessing prior learning in the workplace. General NVQs emerged as an odd variant of them for colleges and schools. More than two-thirds of vocational qualifications currently conferred are old-style awards.

A truly national system of vocational awards, which can accommodate the qualifications that employers value whether old or new, will I hope be at the top of QNCA's agenda. The key is probably the distinction Beaumont makes between setting standards - the responsibility of employers - and designing qualifications - the province of the awarding bodies. The role of the authority then becomes to check that the award meets the standards through appropriate content and assessment. It is likely, as Beaumont and Capey suggested, that there will have to be different qualification modes for preparing for work and upskilling in work.

GNVQs will need to be properly designed as applied education. They are, if anything, further back than NVQs. At least with NVQs employers were given the chance to say what they should be about even if they did not always recognise what the consultants wrote for them. But with GNVQs too little thought has gone into the defining cores. Do leisure and tourism really belong together, for example?

Following the agonising of the joint SCAANCVQ committee on GNVQ part ones it does look now as if the content of GNVQs is going to be specified and some substantial external assessment which contributes to grading introduced, but there is still a long way to go. And what are they to be called? Dearing proposed renaming advanced GNVQs as applied A-levels and bringing together courses in areas like business studies, but enthusiasm for this seems to be waning.

With A-levels themselves, the QNCA will have to grapple with the perennial problem of breadth. Can this be tackled through a critical thinking A-level to replace general studies, or will the proposed new AS in key skills be enough? It will also have to decide whether the proposed new national advanced diploma, which can be met, for example, by A-levels in sociology and biology, and AS levels in English, history and key skills, is a genuine contribution to breadth.

At best, the new authority could be just the shake-up that qualifications need. With NCVQ gone there would be room for fresh thinking on applied education and occupational training. At worst, however, it could mean the take-over of SCAA by true adherents of the NCVQ faith and an undermining of academic qualifications through competence-speak.

A lot depends on the shape of the new organisation and who staffs it. It is potentially a very powerful monopoly that could go off in an idiosyncratic direction just as NCVQ did. Given that it will be responsible for Dearing's three types of learning there is a strong argument for three separate strands of activity, each perhaps the responsibility of a deputy chief executive and each served by its own committee. This would not only ensure that GCSEA-levels, GNVQs and NVQs each had someone to fight for them, but it would create an element of internal competition to balance any monopolistic tendencies.

It would of course mean that QNCA was that much more difficult to control and integrate and make the appointments of the chairman, and later the chief executive, especially important. The Department for Education and Employment in its advertisement for a chairman says it is looking for someone with a proven track record, who has highly-developed policy-making, communication, presentational and negotiating skills, with a good knowledge of the English education and training system including recent policy developments. Now who does this sound like? Could it be, yet again, step forward Sir Ron?

Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University.

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