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Research industry should resist life in an ivory tower

There is no overestimating the size of the task given to the National Council for Vocational Qualifications in 1989. No sooner had they set up a completely new system of work-based qualifications, amid much scepticism and hostility, than the next task came along - to provide a vocational alternative to A-levels.

No wonder many of the researchers working for the NCVQ long for a period of "managed change" rather than "hysterical change". That was one message coming out of a conference last week to disseminate some of the many findings from the NCVQ's growing body of research into general national vocational qualifications.

Tim Oates, director of research at the council, said their researchers must keep on top of everything that's published, use it in their own work, monitor how GNVQs are working in practice, provide evidence for policy-makers and keep improving the qualification for teachers and students. And they must do all this without alienating teachers by handing down endless demolished forests of guidance and prescriptions.

Predictably, the NVQ and GNVQ enterprise has generated its own research industry. The NCVQ now employs 25 staff in its research unit and the cost of amending GNVQs to take account of the Capey Report and the Dearing review of 16-19 qualifications is estimated to be Pounds 10 million.

But it is not only researchers from the NCVQ who must keep on top of the systems and standards they have set up. They must link up with inspectors from the Further Education Funding Council, the Office for Standards in Education and staff working for the Further Education Development Agency to make sure that the messages going out to schools, colleges and government are consistent.

So the sheer scale of the enterprise, and the political will to make sure that GNVQs have credibility means that there has been a noticeable change in how the NCVQ now relates to other researchers, and how it deals with criticism.

Many of their research projects raise important issues for the whole post-compulsory curriculum, and they have implications for how GNVQs at higher levels in universities might end up. There are national exercises to scrutinise the consistency of teachers' grading decisions, with some interesting long-term studies being carried out to compare grading over time.

One project has looked at how teachers ensure that their assessment is consistent with that of their colleagues, while another aims to find out whether teaching methods in A-levels and advanced GNVQs make any difference to students' achievement.

For those of us who set up the Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education and the Technical Vocational Education Initiative in schools and colleges in the early 1980s, many of the findings have a strong sense of deja vu about them. There's also a feeling of frustration that much of what the NCVQ has "found out" about assessment has already been pointed out in a number of critical reports.

But is clear that the NCVQ is listening to criticism and there was repeated talk at the conference of the need to disseminate the findings of their research. They have a huge task on their hands to do this in a way which will help teachers feel a sense of "ownership" of the GNVQ.

When the NCVQ and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority merge, the scale of their research endeavour will become huge indeed. If it is to reach all the teachers who have struggled against the bureaucratic odds to implement GNVQs, and all the trainee teachers who must quickly get to grips with them, then quangos and other researchers must create more opportunities to share what they know and to admit what they don't.

Otherwise, ivory towers will not just allegedly exist in universities. It would be all too easy for the new Qualification and National Curriculum Authority's own research industry to become one too.

Kathryn Ecclestone is a senior tutor at Sunderland University School of Education

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