There can be few qualifications that have been criticised as fiercely as the NVQ. It was created to provide practical training to prepare students for their chosen occupations; to set the benchmark for vocational learning. But in recent years it has been increasingly derided as low quality by experts and employers. Now TES has learned of another significant blow to the reputation of the qualification: it has not been approved to be taught in university technical colleges (UTCs).
The new breed of 14-19 schools are the brainchild of former education secretary Lord Baker. Backed by Michael Gove, they are designed to specialise in technical learning. A report by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) published today - commissioned by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust (BDET), which promotes the UTC scheme - lists the science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) qualifications regarded as high quality by industry experts. This is effectively a shortlist of GCSE and A-level equivalent qualifications approved for use in UTCs. It includes BTECs, diplomas and extended project qualifications, as well as more traditional GCSEs and A-levels in Stem subjects such as engineering, electronics, maths and physics.
But, although NVQs in subjects such as railway engineering, plumbing and vehicle maintenance were considered, none has made the cut. While they have not actually been banned from UTCs, the RAE report suggests that they could be used "in support of or combined with" the approved qualifications. According to BDET chief executive Peter Mitchell, UTCs must offer a broad education offering scope for progression in different areas, not just churn out learners to work in a specific industry. "Although UTCs have a great deal of employer engagement, and teach both practical and academic together, it still isn't like being at work. NVQs were never intended for schools," he said.
The report cites research which suggests that level 2 NVQs fail to boost learners' earning power; in fact, students with the qualification on average earned less than their peers who had no vocational qualifications at all. While level 3 NVQs gave learners an income boost of 5-7 per cent, their impact was outstripped by rival qualifications.
Dr Annette Cox, associate director of the Institute for Employment Studies, believes the NVQ ethos - demonstrating competence against set standards for specific occupations - does not sit comfortably with current education philosophy. "Some of the NVQ's critics have raised the idea of theoretical knowledge, arguing that it's possible to demonstrate competence without having a deep understanding or knowledge."
Even supporters of the NVQ have doubts about its suitability for UTCs. Nick Gooderson, head of education, training and qualifications at sector-skills council CITB-ConstructionSkills - which led a campaign to save the qualification in 2009 - agrees with the report's findings. "NVQs are respected in the industry, but we would hope that in UTCs you would get a broader grounding," he said.
A spokeswoman for City amp; Guilds, one of the biggest NVQ providers, is, unsurprisingly, defensive about the qualification, insisting that it is "highly valuable" and that those who take the right NVQs are "more likely to be in employment". But the RAE's concerns echo the findings of the Wolf review, published in March. Professor Alison Wolf, an economist at King's College London, concluded that the content of many NVQs "is not actually valued by employers and the labour market".
As Professor Wolf points out, "spending a year or two taking one on a government training scheme is likely to reduce someone's lifetime earnings, not raise them". In the brave new world of technical excellence, mere competency is not enough. The decision by the UTCs is another nail in the coffin of the NVQ.
MAKING THE GRADE
Level 2 Stem qualifications approved for use in UTCs:
BTEC first diploma in vehicle technology
BTEC first certificate in engineering
BTEC first certificate in construction
Certificate in engineering
Certificate in engineering and technology
Certificate in 2D computer-aided design
Certificate in the use of maths
14-19 higher diploma in engineering
14-19 higher diploma in construction and the built environment
14-19 higher diploma in product design and manufacturing
Higher project qualification
GCSE design and technology
BTEC first diploma in applied science
BTEC first diploma in engineering
BTEC first diploma in construction.