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Qualified but with the same old skills

Education is more important than qualifications. Unfortunately, current policies are leading to workers gaining qualifications when there has been practically no education, very little skill development, and almost no growth in understanding.

There will have been some accreditation of existing skills, but that is a marginal gain. This danger is brought home by the illustration of employer training pilots (ETPs), presented in the 2004 pre-budget report Skills in the Global Economy. It suggests that the average time taken to achieve a level 2 qualification is 100 hours. Remember the level 2 qualification is the equivalent to GCSE, and those seeking such an award through ETP will not have previous experience of more than minimal success at this level.

So, students seeking the qualification will, probably, have had a mixed experience of school - certainly in terms of securing qualifications - and yet it only takes 100 hours for them to gain GCSE. Of course, maturity can make a difference, and they will have learnt something in the workplace.

However, it damages the credulity of the process to suggest that 100 hours is sufficient to demonstrate newly acquired skills, let alone acquire them.

Were it otherwise, this kind of option is unlikely to appeal to the average 16-year-old.

The philosophy seems flawed in two crucial respects. First, it adds nothing to the overall national skill base. It merely accredits, perhaps on uncertain grounds, skills already present. As such, it gives validity to the idea that qualifications are legitimate but that accredited learning is not. In doing so, it undermines the lengthy process to develop acceptable measures for valid accreditation of prior learning. Second, it does little to support students in their current or future learning plans. Indeed, given that students have limited success in education previously, the simple awarding of a qualification is unlikely to make them believe in its value. As such, the desired outcome of further study beyond level 2 is questionable. It is unsurprising that the figures for those passing level 2 qualifications through the ETP route (70 per cent) are higher than those studying formal educational qualifications outside the ETP process (55 per cent). However, the fact that less than 40 per cent of students who have been successful through the ETP plan to take level 3 qualifications suggests they know they have not sufficiently developed their skill set.

Yet the accreditation process is less flawed than it appears. For there is no real intention to improve skills. That is why it can be accomplished in 100 hours. Within its own terms, then, the process may be valid. For the focus is very much on awarding a national vocational qualification based on pre-existing skills. Consequently, experience in the workplace is more valuable than would be the case for a more general level 2 qualification.

So, the ETP accreditation process assesses what trainees already know and, assuming appropriate boxes can be ticked, awards credit accordingly. The Adult Learning Inspectorate ETP pilot survey, published in December 2005, notes that there is little in terms of skills training. Tellingly, there is not even the intention that job-related skills will be improved. More crucially, given the current concerns with developing skills and the reality that those lacking a level 2 qualification will have limited language and numeracy skills, there is virtually no effort made to improve these. The ALI report states: "This sometimes results in a peculiar and unacceptable situation where a learner with weak basic skills on entry is likely to leave without improving these skills yet still achieve an NVQ or other qualification."

Doesn't this partially undermine the enterprise?

The problem with this kind of on-the-job review of existing skills is that it differs markedly from what is required in lifelong learning. It is unlikely to lead to personal development because the individual is scarcely taken outside the confines of their current workplace. So, what might have been a meaningful educational experience has limited worth and makes study at level 3 unlikely. If the economy needs those with lifelong learning skills, and there is a recognition that these can be developed through life-wide experiences, the limited ETP accreditation process is not helping.

Instead, it too often merely recognises pre-existing skills; it does little to build literacy or numeracy skills, and so confidence for further study.

Although it may imply that more workers have qualifications, accreditation adds very little to the national skill base.

Graham Fowler is an FE writer, researcher and consultant

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