A new professionalism

3rd March 1995 at 00:00
The challenge of competence: Professionalism through vocational training Edited by Phil Hodkinson and Mary Issett. 0 304 32987 8. #163;12.99 Cassell Education.

Colin Flint on the problems of vocational education. No one seriously doubts that Britain needs a better system of vocational education and training. We may spend more on education than many advanced countries; we have not been getting the same value. Our national expenditure is 5.2 per cent of GDP. Germany is at four per cent, Japan at 3.7 per cent. We are used to the familiar litanies of failure, but it is none the less real.

As Corelli Barnett and many others have told us, the alarm bells have been sounding for about 150 years. Some of them are now being rather more clearly heard. Neither political party has yet dared grasp the nettle of the costs of our higher education system and no one looks remotely willing to do what is necessary about A levels, the main cause of lack of coherence in our post-compulsory structures. But some attempt is being made to address at least some of the issues.

The Challenge of Competence is about one of the key reforms. Through 12 essays by different contributors, it takes a long, serious and generally unfriendly look at National Vocational Qualifications, and questions their relevance, appropriateness, adequacy and philosophical underpinning.It provides a critical examination of the design and operation of competence-based approaches to vocational education and training, as promoted by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

One of the problems faced by editors of books like this is that it takes at least a year from concept to bookshelf. Most of the references in these chapters are to publications from 1992 and 1993. This does not remove the force of the arguments, but it does mean that the world will have moved on before they are read. It is no longer true, or less true than it was, that the demand for NVQs "has been almost entirely created by the state", as asserted by John Field in his valuable enquiry "Are NVQs Employment-led?" The main market undoubtedly once was low-level qualifications within Youth and Adult Training schemes, and the new funding arrangements for further education have certainly encouraged vigorous marketing of NVQs. But some very big companies are now making enthusiastic use of them.

The book does not line itself up with Alan Smithers' "a disaster of epic proportions" and is at pains to distance itself from that kind of apocalyptic tele-journalism. But it does to a rather worrying degree rely on "professionalism" as an antidote to all this competence. Whose professions? Teaching training and social care professionals have a right to join the debate, but they have not solved all our problems in the past. And who would want a system devised by accountants and estate agents?

However, this is a useful analysis of the infrastructures of Vocational Educational Training systems and what they should offer. There are examples of good practice, a scholarly survey of European models by Andy Green, a valuable drawing-together of some over-arching principles from Terry Hyland and Phil Hodkinson.

The editors rightly urge us to build from where we are now. They remind us there never was a golden age of apprenticeship-based skills education, and competence is not enough. We need emphasis on learning, not just doing,and good teachers are essential.

Colin Flint is Principal of Solihull College.

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