NVQ mission is impossible

British Training International, the Government-backed organisation set up to fly the flag for vocational training overseas, has abandoned its original mission.

In a newsletter, chairman Garry Hawkes, said that the organisation's original aim to export national vocational qualifications had been changed "to suit the reality of the market".

NVQs were "the product of a particular economic environment" and had "limited transferability", he added.

Organisations attempting the wholesale export of vocational qualifications have met with serious difficulties. In one case, students in Oman who were being assessed for an NVQ in heating engineering found that it had a compulsory element on radiators - unheard of there.

One BTI insider admitted: "There have been people going over there and stamping all over the place, with terrible consequences, particularly in the Middle East. People have been saying we have got NVQs for sale, they are good for you, you'll like them. But NVQs are particularly inflexible - you can't just transfer NVQs with all their inherent intricacies from one country to another."

BTI's chief executive Ruth Gee denied that the change represented a climbdown, saying that the organisation had assumed a more general role, as a broker for UK expertise in the field of vocational education and training. "We have broadened our mission," she said. NVQs - which account for around a quarter of all international educational business - were suitable in some cases but BTI were moving towards tailormade rather than off-the-peg qualification systems.

"The qualification is only part of the vocational and educational training system. There is nothing wrong with NVQs per se it's just that they have been developed to suit our local conditions."

Ms Gee insisted that NVQs were based on strong principles which could be adapted for international markets, she added.

Companies like Marks Spencer, which has developed its own "SVQs" - standing for service, value and quality - for staff in its overseas stores, were a good example of how systems of workplace assessment could be modified, she said.

At BTI's first annual conference in London last week, Sir William Stubbs, chair of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, urged caution. He said: "If you take UK qualifications outside the UK they are no longer the same. "

But George Mudie, the minister for lifelong learning, gave NVQ exports an enthusiastic seal of approval. "This Government is committed to NVQs. BTI has been extremely energetic in opening up export possibilities for vocational qualifications," he said.

College representatives at the conference were unconvinced. "I was interested to hear that NVQs have gone international," said one, "because whenever I go abroad, no one's ever heard of them."

Others expressed confusion over the exact role of BTI. The international manager of one college with extensive experience of foreign business asked:

"There's a huge stage before the contract goes to tender - what's BTI's role there? What can BTI's role be when the contracts do go to tender? It's obvious these issues haven't yet been addressed."

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