'Gold standard' NVQs abandoned in favour of untested system

Further education in England faces an upheaval with the decision to abandon National Vocational Qualifications as the "gold standard" of work- based education in favour of a system which the qualifications regulator has admitted is untested and has yet to prove its worth.

In Scotland, by contrast, the equivalent Scottish Vocational Qualifications have been retained as a distinct qualification.

In the biggest overhaul of vocational qualifications south of the border for 20 years, NVQs are due to be folded into a new three-tier system of vocational awards, certificates and diplomas made up from standalone credits representing 10 hours of learning.

Officials expect the successor qualifications to be primarily known by new titles under the Qualifications and Credit Framework, and using the National Vocational Qualification "brand" will become optional.

Awarding bodies, colleges and employers will be able to develop competing qualifications with different levels of quality, although they will have to gain industry approval to receive public funding.

Approval would have to be given by the sector skills councils - which represent employers.

Employers in industries such as construction and manufacturing argue that the change undermines their attempts to establish NVQs as a universally- accepted qualification.

Nick Gooderson, head of training and qualifications at the sector skills council ConstructionSkills, said: "It was agreed that NVQs would be the gold standard for labourers right up to architects and quantity surveyors. It's the licence to work in our sector and a benchmark of competence.

"A huge amount of work and effort has gone into making employers understand them. The danger is that all that is being lost in favour of an unproven system."

Ofqual, the new regulator for qualifications, said it was not clear whether the QCF proposals would be an improvement and their implementation would need to be closely monitored.

A letter signed by Isabel Nisbet, acting chief executive of Ofqual, said: "The tests and trials identified that many of the key processes of the QCF are yet to be fully tested and that most of the benefits are anticipated rather than realised."

But colleges have backed the new system, arguing that it will give them more scope to provide the qualifications that students and employers want.

Joy Mercer, quality manager at the Association of Colleges, said: "It gives more choice, and it gives more flexibility to put together a programme that serves the needs of learners and employers. "There isn't a single qualification that fits everyone. People are changing jobs, changing the sector they are involved in."

NVQs are now at their highest point of popularity for 10 years, with nearly 700,000 awarded each year.

But research by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in March this year found the reputation of NVQs was variable.

Those who knew NVQs well had a high opinion of their quality. But the research claimed most employers knew the qualification less well, with some supporting it strongly and others viewing it poorly.

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