I had high hopes for Lord Sainsbury’s review, but once again I find a government department suffering from policy amnesia is holding its nose and pointing at awarding organisations as somehow failing the vocational education system. In fact, it was the government-backed Qualifications and Credits Framework (QCF) which caused the explosion in qualifications in the first place.
Annual cycles of policy tinkering have created a messy and confusing system. Qualifications and the collective expertise of exam boards and Ofqual have been constantly de-emphasised to the point where the apprenticeship reform programme lies in tatters as a result of many new assessment strategies being unworkable. The Sainsbury review suggests that the current “market-based approach to qualifications…has led to huge numbers of competing qualifications”, and that one awarding body only should be licensed to deliver each qualification in the proposed new 15 technical routes. Proliferation is a serious issue which undermines confidence in qualifications, but it was the QCF practice of sharing units which led to the 33 plumbing qualifications cited in the review. I sympathise with the plumbing industry. In our own sports and leisure sector, the number of organisations offering qualifications shot up from seven to 22 as a direct result of the introduction of shared units. A key effect of this initiative was the commoditisation of qualifications as they became more similar from an education provider’s point of view, and less distinctive for learners and recruiters.
‘A safer and more workable solution’
The QCF was abandoned last year to be replaced by the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF), and the practice of sharing unit content has been dropped. Awarding organisations must now invest in forging close links with employers to develop meaningful standards. Since the introduction of the RQF, we have already seen some start to withdraw qualifications where they are unwilling to forge those links with industries. I believe that the new RQF system provides a safer and more workable solution than the single awarding body or consortium approach offered.
A monopoly situation which forces colleges and providers into exclusive dealings offers no alternative choice to the college. Having a single body that has full control over setting price and quality arrangements will not be good for the sector. It also presents a single line of failure for each high-stakes qualification, should the incumbent awarding body fail to deliver. That’s not to mention that it may also curtail research and development in assessment methodologies, emerging pedagogy and learning technologies, as there would no longer be a strong commercial imperative to improve and compete.
Over time I can only see this situation getting worse. Lord Sainsbury’s model will create an economic barrier to entry for non-licensed awarding organisations, which will disenable open competition at the end of the three-year fixed licence period. Due to the intensive costs associated with providing awarding services, those organisations that are starved of revenue as a result of this model will most likely collapse financially or completely diversify. This may be especially true of those niche and non-profit awarding organisations which are often trade or professional bodies themselves. The proposed technical routes only cover 43 per cent of occupations and therefore a huge section of the labour market will be overlooked if niche awarding organisations cease to exist, creating de-regulation and disarray in recruitment and making it even more difficult for young people to secure jobs across the breadth of the economy.
At YMCA, we have already contacted a number of select committees to ask them to explore funding and support for young people as a line of inquiry. The Department for Work and Pensions Committee picked it up and announced its call for evidence on 21 July, which we will be contributing to. The "employment opportunities for young people" committee will consider whether current provision for young people is sufficient to enable their full access to and participation in the labour market. The inquiry will also focus on support in the transition from education to employment.
Giving the RQF a chance
As part of a charitable organisation that has constantly evolved for more than 175 years, I believe that the relentless pursuit of innovation through experimentation and reflection – leading to the efficient, timely and consistent production and delivery of services – is the sure-fire path to creating sustainable societal and economic impact. Healthy competition between awarding organisations serves to advance the quality of the UK’s educational offer, when there is also strong regulation and governance in place. Ofqual has recently invested significantly in research on qualification validity and updating its conditions and auditing approach, and government should back its regulator rather than seek to restrain the open market.
In a now ironic statement, the former skills minister Nick Boles opens the post-16 Skills Plan with the words: “Past reforms, over previous decades, have often failed because they lacked real commitment, with governments changing plans before they could have real impact”. So, before turning the world upside down again, I believe we should give the RQF a chance.
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