Ready with his tons of bricks

Ben Russell meets Dr Nick Tate as he takes up his job heading the new qualifications and curriculum super-quango.

Dr Nick Tate has had his work cut out since February when he started work at the Government's new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

On Wednesday the former Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority chief executive formally took over responsibility for the vast and complex world of vocational education - armed with unprecedented powers over the studies of tens of thousands of school, further education students and work trainees.

Dr Tate has been assessing the task before him: to accredit every awarding body and every one of the thousands of vocational qualifications offered in England today. So far even the precise number of applied courses is unclear, although estimates suggest there are around 16,000 vocational qualifications - a figure that increases almost daily.

The new quango has been formed through the merger of SCAA and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

Many have seen the merger as a simple takeover by SCAA, the body responsible for the nation's GCSEs, A-levels and national curriculum tests.

But this is a suggestion refuted by all those involved.

And those seated at the QCA's top table do reflect a mix of styles and backgrounds. Sir William Stubbs, former Further Education Funding Council chief executive and rector of the London Institute, is chairman, with leading industrialist Sir Dominic Cadbury as his deputy.

The man at the helm day to day, however, is Dr Tate, best known for battles over classroom - rather than shop-floor - best practice.

He insists the new QCA will be more than the sum of its parts, with its huge new powers to regulate education.

"QCA is more than a merger," he said, "We are bringing together the staff, but to create an organisation which has very different powers.

"I'm very keen that QCA is a pretty tough regulator and I'm keen that we come down like a ton of bricks on awarding bodies that are not maintaining an appropriate level of quality assurance. Employers want to know that the quality of qualifications is good."

It will be a long haul. Dr Tate has spent the run-in to QCA's launch starting to develop the means by which his staff will accredit both awarding bodies and the qualifications they provide. It is just the beginning of the process that he estimates will take around three years.

He has been doing the groundwork, visiting firms and training groups to see NVQs and other vocational qualifications in action. And Dr Tate is keen to point out that he was involved in vocational education through his work on education-business links at the end of the 1980s.

Ministers are known to want a slimmed down system of awarding bodies and a slimmed down curriculum in the academic and vocational fields.

Dr Tate is anxious that the current system be made to make sense - that after all is the point of a regulator. But he insists that the worthwhile qualifications will not be culled, nor will they be shoehorned into a national framework just for the sake of neatness.

Indeed Dr Tate has indicated a willingness to do deals with exam boards and awarding bodies to make sure uneconomic but worthwhile minority subjects are preserved. Just because there are only a few forensic scientists, he argues, does not mean their qualifications and training schemes are not needed.

Such arguments will inform the review of Schedule Two of the Further and Higher Education Act, which lays down which courses attract public subsidy.

Dr Tate's answer is to rely on "sector advisory groups", industry bodies, based on the model of National Training Organisations, to assess needs in each industrial sector, and help policy-makers match those needs against a portfolio of courses and qualifications.

But he insists the voice of colleges and training groups will be vital in this process. They after all design and operate many of courses for which QCA is now responsible.

Where there will be action, however, is in efforts to raise the profile and status of vocational qualifications - attacking the notorious academic-vocational divide many say has dogged the British economy since the 19th century.

He pointed to proposals for an over-arching certificate to cover A-levels and vocational awards as a possible way forward.

Students, even the brightest, could combine academic and vocational courses within a national school-leaving certificate at advanced level.

The French baccalaureate was a possible example, he said, being a qualification with high-quality, prestigious vocational and academic variants.

Class values, and the long-running poor status of engineering, motor maintenance, hairdressing and other vocational staples, would be tough to overcome.

But increasing confidence in the quality of courses and qualifications was the right way forward, he said. "We need to get the product right and we have come a long way achieving that.

"Having done that we can try to raise the status of vocational qualifications. "

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