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'I am delighted to see the QCF go'

Professor Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London and author of the Wolf Review of vocational education, writes: 

Yesterday, the Qualifications and Credit Framework hit the dust. Ofqual has announced that vocational qualifications will no longer need to meet QCF rules in order to be eligible for public funding.

“The QC what?” you may wonder– and very reasonably so. But the QCF mattered.  Shadowy, impenetrable and largely unloved, it created strict new rules for the size, structure and name of every vocational qualification in the land.  More or less every pre-existing award had to be comprehensively redesigned. It cost us millions. It distorted vocational education for young people and adults. And it rewarded low quality at the expense of excellence and innovation.

I am delighted to see it go. But before the QCF joins the long list of forgotten educational acronyms, we should understand just why it was so harmful. Otherwise we will, once again, repeat history.

QCF rules lasted just seven years from their roll-out by the now defunct Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. But they were the apogee of a much longer-standing, ideologically driven campaign by government agencies. This set out to raise the prestige of vocational education, and achieved the opposite.

QCF rules reduced everything to “bite-sized” chunks like little Lego bricks. Qualifications had a level – think red, yellow and blue for levels 1,2 and 3 -  but within that, bricks (“units”) could be stacked up and interchanged in almost endless variation. Each brick must be separately assessed: but you could teach and certificate in pretty much any order - a sort of modularity on speed. What you couldn’t do was fit an award to the subject-matter and demands of a particular occupation.

Underlying this was a theory of learning: a belief (sorely lacking for evidence) that you could break everything down into small parts, and create better learning than ever before. There was also a blind faith that assigning a given “credit” value to each unit would, all on its own, make them equal in value: again, like bits of Lego.

This doctrine was accepted by ministers (who almost certainly failed to understand what was going on) and underpinned the introduction of QCF-based “equivalencies” into league tables. Anything that met Ofqual rules for a given “level” of qualification would, henceforth, count as equivalent to anything else at that level. So any QCF level 2 award was henceforth “equivalent” to a level 2 GCSE.

In 2010/11, I carried out a review of vocational education for the government.  I found that, because of the new equivalence rules, the number of vocational awards being delivered at Key Stage 4 had rocketed and was heading ever upwards. Unfortunately, many of these awards were completely unsuited to the pupils taking them and far less than the sum of their parts. Young people with large numbers of small QCF-compliant qualifications found that their awards were completely unrecognised by employers, and no help in progressing within education either.

This wasn’t surprising. The QCF was meant to reduce the number of qualifications. Instead, Ofqual’s figures show an increase from around 9,700 in 2008 to over 23,000 in 2013. Even the old ones were usually comprehensively redesigned.  In this situation, how could employers or colleges keep up? And if you don't and can’t know what is good, and what is relevant, you end up discounting much of what a school-leaver has to offer. 

The QCF also embodied a longer-standing delusion. Like the NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) created and imposed by the governments of the 1990s, the QCF system was based largely around national “standards”. These were supposed to be employer-driven:  but in practice are detailed and rigid lists, written by central bureaucracies. These standards are supposed to be super-clear: in fact, as we know from years of research, they are interpreted very differently by different people.

The job of awarding bodies, under QCF rules, is largely to determine whether candidates have ticked every box. They have no capacity to innovate. They also have no incentive to demand high quality. Instead it becomes logical and tempting to compete by cutting costs and making it easier and more straightforward for candidates to pass an award.

My review found no evidence that employers, in the past, had any trouble understanding the vocational qualifications specific to their sector. Conversely, today everyone is confused by repeated reform drives. As one irritated college principal complained to us: “We need to stop changing the names of vocational qualifications. It confuses  employers, parents and young people …. BTEC National was a well-established brand and in its place I now have students studying for BTEC Supplementary Diploma Level 3. Ugh!”

So no wonder, and thank goodness, that Ofqual’s review concluded that the “one-size-fits-all approach to… vocational qualifications is not necessary and in some cases has proved inappropriate and damaging”.

It is my firm belief that vocational qualifications will not be improved by yet another push from the top. So I am doubly pleased that Ofqual is not proposing another big reform. In fact, they are not imposing a new set of rules at all. Where qualifications have been bent out of shape by the rules, awarding bodies will need to make sure they are fit for purpose. It is now up to employers and educators to help them develop qualifications which deserve, and therefore acquire, genuine value.

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