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Simply simplify to gain learners

QCA head outlines his vision of clear and bespoke qualifications for student and employer. James Sturke reports

A crystal-clear system of further education awards which "do what they say on the box" has been promised by the head of the exam quango.

In a confident and uncompromising speech Ken Boston, director of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, vowed there would be a sea change in the way learners, providers and employers view further education qualifications by the time his massively complex reform programme is completed in 2010.

But he told more than 200 delegates from the Learning and Skills Council, colleges, awarding bodies and professional organisations at a London conference last week that government money would be needed to build the country's human capital.

And he left many fearing that their jobs would disappear as a result of the simplification of current qualifications.

Plain-speaking Dr Boston, appointed on the back of his track-record for training and vocational qualifications as director of further education in Australia, said: "When we are successful by 2010, when the new qualifications framework is fully operational, far more people will perceive themselves to be learners.

"When we are successful, there will be a profound change. The ongoing acquisition of knowledge and skills will be a routine and expected activity. The language to describe the framework will be crystal clear. The framework will be stripped of all its complexities and mystique.

"The purpose of each qualification will be explicit and clear with title, level, content and assessment fit for that purpose. The qualification will be what it says on the box."

He said the framework would consist of a system of credits and units offering qualifications from entry level to the equivalent of higher degrees.

Under the plan, the categorisation of qualifications into general, vocationally-related and occupational will be abandoned in 2004.

By March next year ministers will be supplied with an implementation plan of the framework. Before the end of 2004, qualifications will read directly across to those in Scotland and by 2007 there will be convergence with European frameworks.

Dr Boston said within four years, learners will be able to input their career intentions into an interactive website and receive a road map of available training and qualifications. He declared progression to higher education would not be constrained by stereotype and it would also be commonplace for university graduates to take courses within the national qualifications network.

He added: "Employers will understand qualifications can be tailor-made for their business or industry. There will be core units plus flexible options to make a designer qualification that meets the needs of the employer and employee."

Awarding bodies were told that from next year they will have to demonstrate a "consistently impeccable service" and by 2005 performance reports on all awards bodies will be published. Colleges, larger firms and the private sector may also take on awarding functions, he added.

Dr Boston also warned that the Government would need to finance the reforms.

He said: "It is important to understand that when Mike Tomlinson (on 14-19 qualifications) has done his work he will have, I hope, an educational blueprint which will include a substantial number of vocational courses which are properly accredited.

"But that will not make it happen. It will take investment. I cannot think of an example anywhere in the world where there has not been a financial incentive for small businesses to take on young workers. The Government needs to understand that."

Dr Boston received support from delegates, many of whom privately expressed frustration at the state of the FE sector. However, there was concern that the vested interests of educational bodies would hinder him along the way.

After Dr Boston's speech, Andy Westwood, head of public policy research at the Work Foundation, said a massive cultural change would be required in boardrooms to carry through the reforms.

He said: "But Dr Boston won't back down from the fights that lie ahead. If the delegates are not frightened by what Dr Boston said, they should be. If he is still here in 2010 giving these speeches, it is clear he won't need such a big room."

The conference was sponsored by The TES.

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