`Bloated' exam system faces slimming regime

Some vocational qualifications may not survive sweeping overhaul

England's exams regulator Ofqual has started a major overhaul of vocational qualifications that could lead to them becoming more closely aligned to the needs of employers.

Some qualifications will be redeveloped or even scrapped under the new system, officials have said.

Last week, Ofqual launched a consultation about improving the way the qualifications are regulated, saying that a set of rules described by some awarding bodies as a "straitjacket" could be dropped altogether. The regulator is also seeking opinions on how vocational qualifications are accredited and the number of learning hours they contain.

Jeremy Benson, Ofqual's director of policy, told TES that the new focus was driven by recent policy changes and concerns from employers.

"We are aware there have been some concerns about vocational qualifications," he said. "There are many good vocational qualifications that employers value but some that employers are frustrated about. We have a role as regulator to focus our efforts on quality and respond to employers' needs.

"The challenge for us is how do we understand and think about how we regulate to secure those outcomes? We are putting in place the building blocks for a better vocational system with qualifications people can trust."

Ofqual is proposing to remove the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), which sets out detailed rules about how vocational qualifications should be designed.

According to the watchdog, these rules focus too much on design and structure - for example, courses built around credits and units - and not enough on standards and quality, which can stand in the way of innovation. However, Ofqual is proposing to allow awarding bodies to continue to design flexible unit-based and credit-bearing qualifications.

Mr Benson said Ofqual was not advocating a "scorched earth policy", adding that although some vocational qualifications might have to be redeveloped or even withdrawn, "good quality, valuable" qualifications based on the QCF could continue. He would not comment on which qualifications might be scrapped.

"There are some [qualifications] we have had concerns about but we are not targeting specifics," he said. "We want to strengthen our understanding as a regulator about what's going on."

City amp; Guilds welcomed the proposals as a "great step forward" for vocational education. It said the QCF often "hampered" the ability of awarding bodies to design vocational qualifications with industry, and described the framework as a "straitjacket".

Head of customer strategy and marketing Chris Kirk told TES that the QCF had taken the vocational sector "backwards".

"It did not deliver any of the benefits it could have, and generally we saw very little positive impact," he said. "It was inflexible and meant we couldn't really deliver the qualifications employers wanted. The market should decide what has value, not an inflexible set of rules like the QCF.

"The vocational system is bloated, there are far too many qualifications and the QCF has facilitated that."

But not everyone in the sector has welcomed Ofqual's proposals. Robert Gray, head of pre-employment skills at adult education body Niace, said: "The QCF is internationally recognised as the world's most advanced qualification framework and it is disappointing that criticism has led to Ofqual losing confidence in its ability to stand by the QCF design rules.

"There continues to be tremendous support for unit-based, credit-bearing qualifications, particularly from employers, providers and learners who have utilised their full flexibilities. We are encouraged that Ofqual won't be stopping awarding organisations from creating these.

"However, Niace believes it is important for Ofqual, rather than awarding organisations, to determine when it is appropriate for qualifications to be unit-based and credit-bearing."

The consultation closes on 16 October.

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