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A louder voice for the bosses

Nick Tate (right) explains the role of the new qualifications authority that promises to bring a welcome clarity to the acronym jungle

ONE OF the most important events in this year's education and training calendar will be the emergence of a new major player on the national scene. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), starting on 1 October, will have responsibilities ranging from the under-fives to higher level vocational qualifications. These will include the national curriculum, national tests, and academic and vocational qualifications taught in schools, colleges and publicly funded training. In addition, from April 1998, the authority will be responsible for the occupational standards programme currently managed by Department for Education and Employment.

One reason for bringing together the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications is to strengthen links between the worlds of education and industry. How will the new authority set about doing this, in the context of its duty in the 1997 Education Act to promote "quality and coherence in education and training"?

First, it will ensure that the employer voice is heard more often in aspects of education where it has sometimes not played a key role, above all in the development of the national curriculum, the national tests and academic qualifications. Given the vital importance of skill levels in ensuring that we hold our own in an increasingly competitive global economy, it is a voice we must listen to - although by no means the only one. Its insistence on the need to raise expectations, and its recognition that there is more to education and training than the strictly utilitarian or narrowly vocational, has made it a voice worth listening to.

Second, the authority will extend employers' already wide involvement in the development of vocational qualifications to cover the full range of vocational qualifications. It has long been the aspiration of employers to have a truly national and coherent framework of vocational qualifications with fewer acronyms, less duplication and clear lines of progression from one qualification to another. The chance to create this has at last come, now that QCA has been given powers to vet all vocational qualifications in publicly funded provision.

This is a task which can only be accomplished sector by sector, with close involvement of employers, and in particular of the new National Training Organisations (NTOs), which are due to start around the same time as the QCA. There is a vast amount of work to be done in clarifying the relationship between, and need for, the different qualifications available in each sector: NVQs, GNVQs, and the many non-GNVQ vocational and general vocational qualifications available.

The authority will need to work with each sector, or group of sectors, involving NTOs, other prominent employers, professional bodies and further and higher education in the task. Although its powers do not extend to courses accredited by higher education or by professional bodies, there is a marvellous opportunity to see how far frameworks embracing the whole vocational provision can be developed, by joint working and co-operative relationships.

Third, the QCA will ensure that employers - through the new NTOs - will retain their involvement in the occupational standards programme. Existing standards will need to be reviewed and updated, and the QCA will be responsible for funding this work, using there proceeds of the levy charged on the award of NVQs. As well as being the basis of NVQs, standards will also provide the criteria by which other qualifications admitted to the national framework will be judged. In addition, they will continue to be used on their own to support a range of business improvements, activities including target-setting, job evaluation and appraisal.

Finally, the QCA will provide an opportunity for a new focus on the many ways in which business, schools and colleges can work together. Spanning the whole range of provision as it does, QCA will be well placed to identify needs, promote links and evaluate what is being achieved. Links with business will need to be particularly close when tackling disadvantage and under-achievement, in supporting particular areas of the curriculum, and in promoting the sense that education is about preparation for membership of a community as well as equipping people for careers. One of the most important contributions that business can make to education is by providing young people with role models of what it is like to be a responsible adult: through work experience; through mentoring; through case studies of business ethics; and through careers which illustrate business at its best.

Business of course means employees as well as employers. Some of the most effective education-business links involve large numbers of employees working with individual schools and pupils. This kind of activity needs to continue, and to expand. Business in its widest sense has a key role to play in helping to build that sense of local and national community which is needed if the Government's ambitious plans for education and training are to come to fruition. It will be one of QCA's responsibilities to facilitate and encourage this.

The writer is chief executive-designate of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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