Two seemingly unconnected events were announced recently - the National Council for Vocational Qualifications will spend Pounds 3 million a year marketing NVQs and Gilbert Jessup, a key member of the council, has retired as deputy chief executive.
The marketing of NVQs was a Department of Employment function and it must be acknowledged that it did not carry out this task with much enthusiasm. Gilbert Jessup protested often, when challenged about the shortcomings of NVQs, that the NCVQ really had very little control. It merely validates programmes designed by the lead bodies (representing the interests of industry) and administered by existing awarding bodies.
The council itself is a small unit, based in London, lean and efficient but apparently not listening much to the bleats and wails of the vocational assessors in workplaces, the training providers and their poor candidates.
Dr Jessup and his colleagues frequently remind us that NVQs have forged a revolution in the administration and assessment of vocational training. If some of the changes have not turned out to be as effective as intended, it is because many employers have not responded positively to the notion that the best place for assessment is in the workplace.
However, colleges of further education have invested heavily in creating some realistic simulations and have stocked up on materials to promote competence-based learning. Trainers are no longer years behind industry in their practice and they now offer greater flexibility and opportunities for self-directed learning, which is a very positive outcome of the changes.
The colleges, vocational assessors and trainers have been forced to acknowledge new learning styles, with much more emphasis on outcomes and a focus on showing what you can do as well as what you know. In his retirement, Dr Jessup can reflect that he has played a key role in a movement which has begun to realise his vision of a coherent system of easily understood levels of attainment which are nationally recognised and which have specified quality standards.
But he and his colleagues have been arrogant in their insistence on maintaining some of their early principles underpinning NVQs and not listening to their customers: the employers, the trainees, the assessors and the awarding bodies themselves, who have protested that the system is flawed and practical problems are many and unnecessary.
The employers are unhappy because the lead bodies which design the NVQs are distanced from the real experience and practice of smaller employers, so NVQs are not always relevant. The awarding bodies are unhappy because confusion follows confusion and this undermines their credibility.
The trainees and their assessors feel demotivated for a variety of reasons, not least the difficulties they encounter in achieving and assessing whole qualifications, and not just units towards an NVQ which they cannot offer in the marketplace for jobs. In the real world, achievement of units and part qualifications just acknowledge failure, not successful attainment.
And, of course, the whole nation is unhappy because of the sense that as a result of the introduction of NVQs, standards of attainment in vocational skills have actually fallen and not improved.
If there were any recognition by the NCVQ that the shift towards performance has actually undermined real competence; if there were emphasis on progression and not mechanisms in place to effectively inhibit progression; and if NVQs were not painfully bureaucratic and still just as prescriptive, narrow and complacent as they were 10 years ago, then there would be some hope of development towards a genuinely responsive, clear, simple and well-focused system of vocational qualifications.
But Gilbert Jessup and his team made it clear that they are not very interested in listening to these messages, and those who are professionally involved have become tired, demoralised and demotivated.
Now, many years after the launch of NVQs and the bright new dawn for vocational qualifications, comes the announcement of an enormous investment in marketing, just as Dr Jessup fades from the scene.
The NCVQ must, at this point, be forcibly reminded that the first and enduring role of marketing must be to listen to your customers and act on their recommendations. No amount of TV advertising and media hype will persuade people for very long that a scheme that is intrinsically bad is in fact good.
If NVQs are not the way to equip individuals with job-related skills, then a Pounds 3 million marketing budget would not be enough. No amount of money would be enough.
The new generation of NCVQ management should not reflect too much on past mistakes. They must start out on a new process of really listening to their customers. Any necessary reforms will need to be introduced without fuss. The new NVQs which emerge must be rigorous and include emphasis on theory as well as performance.
The candidates who achieve must be able to demonstrate real competence and not just the ability to pass a test. (To be fair, this was always the aim of Dr Jessup, it is just that NVQs do not do it.) The council must spend their new marketing budget with care. Forget flashy glossy printed productions and spend a lot of time getting NVQs right. They are very far from being right just now and this next year or so could usefully be spent in evaluation, reflection, and above all in listening to its customers.
Anne Tate is development co-ordinator at Weymouth College.