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Business, say what you want;NVQ;Viewpoint;Opinion

When the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was set up last year as the new regulatory body for curriculum, assessment and qualifications, the intention was a close partnership between business and education. Business needs to help us revise the national curriculum so that it meets the needs of a rapidly changing economy.

Business needs to tell us what qualities it is looking for in the young people pursuing qualifications in schools and colleges. Above all, business needs to be the dominant voice in the development of vocational qualifications.

The next couple of years will see important changes in vocational qualifications. Thanks to the work of the former National Council of Vocational Qualifications, we now have a well developed framework of NVQs which is undergoing substantial revision in the light of the recommendations of the Beaumont inquiry.

NVQs are well accepted in certain sectors, at certain levels, and are highly regarded by many companies. More than 400,000 are awarded a year, with the second millionth certificate due to be awarded shortly. The qualifications are well established as a basis for initial training, through Modern Apprenticeships and the new national traineeships, but equally for improving the skills levels of the adult workforce. Of all the awards made, 55 per cent are to people aged 25 and above.

NVQs deserve their reputation as the pinnacle of vocational achievement in the occupations to which they relate. They are based on national occupational standards benchmarked against best practice.

Criticisms that they can be bureaucratic and burdensome, that quality assurance systems are not always applied in practice, and that not enough attention is paid to training as opposed to assessing, must be listened to carefully. They are being vigorously addressed.

NVQs are here to stay, subject to constant improvement, but they are not the only vocational qualifications that are required or always the best.

The awards can be excellent for people wanting to improve their performance in their job, or to stretch themselves so that they can move on to a related but more demanding job.

They can also be a powerful basis for an apprenticeship or a vocational course where there is access to an actual workplace or to a simulated version of the workplace not far removed from the real thing.

But they are not so good for people out of work or wanting to prepare themselves for a job very different from the one they are doing. Nor are NVQs necessarily the best basis for a college-based vocational courses where access to the workplace is limited or where simulated workplace activities are highly contrived.

Many traditional vocational qualifications have continued to thrive side by side with the NVQ. Our task is to scrutinise the vast number of qualifications in publicly funded provision to see what place they should have within a new and more coherent national framework, and what links need to be made between them and the employer-led national occupational standards. The aim will be to compile a register of nationally approved qualifications, and to use this list as the basis for decisions about funding.

The business voice will be at the heart of this exercise. We need to know which qualifications are valued by employers, and for which purposes, whether all the qualifications we have are needed, how we might clarify the relationship between the different qualifications, in particular NVQs and non-NVQs, and how non-degree qualifications relate to degree-level provision and to the requirements of professional bodies.

The Qualification and Curriculum Authority will depend heavily on the advice of the national training organisations, as well as on further and higher education and professional bodies.

Close links will be established with the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, which is taking forward the development of the higher education qualifications framework, including its many vocational courses.

But only far-sighted strategic advice from business can advise us whether qualifications are likely to raise the skills levels of the workforce and enhance this country's economiccompetitiveness.

* Dr Nicholas Tate is chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

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