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Firms wary of larger exam role

Employers are divided over the suggestion that they should set and assess many work-related qualifications. Warwick Mansell reports.

EMPLOYERS today gave a mixed response to exam chief Ken Boston's proposals to give them more control over work-related qualifications.

Some said industry had to get involved to secure the qualifications it wanted. Others said employers already had an important enough role in setting standards for vocational qualifications, though they admitted they played a smaller part in assessment.

Writing in today's TES, Dr Boston says that employers should advise on the standard of qualifications such as vocational A-levels and GCSEs. They should also be involved directly in assessing coursework.

The chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority suggests that in countries such as France, Germany and Austria employers are much more involved at both stages.

Michael Sanderson, chief executive of the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, pointed out that the industry had been closely involved in drawing up vocational GCSEs, though not GNVQs.

But he added: "Dr Boston is right. There are a number of sectors where employers are not engaged with the process, so they are not getting the qualifications they want. It is up to them to do something about it." Other leading trainers also welcomed the comments.

But Sheila Hoile, director of training and strategy for the Construction Industry Training Board, was less enthusiastic. "I don't know what's made him feel that there's not this employer involvement already," she said.

Ms Hoile said the board had set standards for a building GNVQ and was part of the group putting together a new vocational GCSE in building to be launched next year. Employers tended to get involved in assessment for work-based qualifications such as Higher National Certificates and Diplomas in construction but, she conceded, not for GCSEs.

Moreover, her industry may not be typical. The retail sector, for example, has not been involved in setting standards or assessing students. Many GNVQs were drawn up with little employer input in the 1990s. The big difficulty for the new vocational A-level, Ms Hoile said, would be ensuring it catered both for students who wanted to go on to higher education and those bound for the workplace.

And schools and colleges needed to work together to ensure they had teachers capable of taking vocational classes. She said: "If we do not get that right, whatever qualifications and assessment regime we have, it will not work."

George Turnbull, spokesman for Britain's largest exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, said employers were already involved in standard setting on exam board committees.

Given that many qualifications were for university applicants as well as those heading for work, it was essential that the employer's voice was not the only one heard, he said.

He also questioned whether involving firms was always useful. "It is not necessarily a panacea to have an employer involved because he comes from a different perspective from an educational one. Employer requirements might be more narrow than those ... being sought in schools and colleges."

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