Neil Merrick reports on mounting calls to rationalise the national vocational qualification system. Viewers of News At Ten or the Channel 4 show Don't Forget Your Toothbrush may have recently noticed, squeezed between commercials for banks and washing powders, an advert for General National Vocational Qualifications.
On the face of it the ad, placed by the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC), would appear to be a sign of cut-throat competition between the three GNVQ awarding bodies.
But Martin Cross, chief executive of the "rival" RSA Examinations Board, does not see it that way. "In a way BTEC is advertising on behalf of us all. It's in everybody's interests to promote GNVQs," said Mr Cross, who is also chairman of the new Joint Council of National Awarding Bodies.
Co-operation and competition (not necessarily in that order) are the main themes of the joint council which is seeking to restore the credibility of GNVQs following criticisms by inspectors as well as a generally sceptical media.
Speaking at the launch of the council in January, Mr Cross said the three awarding bodies would compete in what is a rapidly-expanding market and co-operate to try to raise the profile of GNVQs. During the past year, the number of students enrolling for GNVQs has doubled to more than 162,000 - equivalent to one in four 16-year-olds. In spite of this growth, the awarding bodies may launch a joint advertising campaign aimed at schools, colleges and employers.
BTEC, the largest GNVQ awarding body, is now deciding whether to continue advertising in March. "We are competing to ensure the best possible service for GNVQs," said a spokesman. "None of that impairs quality."
The need to ensure quality will be at the heart of the work of the joint council. The awarding bodies will seek to implement the GNVQ code of practice and co-ordinate programmes aimed at improving the delivery of GNVQs. The council will also strive to ensure consistent standards of assessment and verification, establish links with GCE and GCSE exam boards, and negotiate arrangements for part one GNVQs at key stage 4.
Joint research, which is initially likely to focus on the systems for assessing and recording progress of students, will be another feature. "By sharing our experiences we hope to be able to persuade agencies such as the National Council for Vocational Qualifications that there are improvements and simplifications which can be made," said Mr Cross.
Andrew Sich, City and Guilds director of marketing, said concerns over quality would be addressed by the joint council. "If we can agree that we will only operate in certain ways then one of the main criticisms made about the National Vocational Qualification system cannot be levelled at GNVQs," he said.
In some ways, the contrast between GNVQs and NVQs could not be greater. While GNVQs remain the property of just three awarding bodies, NVQs are offered by no fewer than 134. They include lead bodies such as the Aviation Training Association and the Engineering Training Authority which were established to set national standards in their industry and have subsequently been accredited as awarding bodies by the NCVQ.
City and Guilds is alarmed by the growth in the number of organisations offering NVQs.
"There are far too many of them. This does nothing for competition," said Mr Sich. "We are all having to duplicate. There comes a point where there is no price advantage and for a small operator it presents more of a temptation to cut corners." Mr Sich stressed there was no concrete evidence that duplication had affected quality, but he welcomed NCVQ guidance which suggested that tighter criteria might be applied in the future.
In its guidance, published in January, the NCVQ said awarding bodies which are also lead bodies must ensure there is no conflict of interest. It appeared less than enthusiastic about smaller awarding bodies which offer a limited number of NVQs: "The NCVQ expects awarding bodies seeking accreditation in a particular occupational area to offer a suite of awards with a range of certification and progression opportunities."
They should also avoid wasteful duplication. "Where there is an NVQ in the same area offered by another awarding body, there needs to be evidence that the new awarding body's proposals are likely to enhance the framework," said the NCVQ guidance.
An NCVQ spokeswoman confirmed that the criteria was being tightened, but added that this would not exclude smaller awarding bodies which met the criteria and wished to offer specialist NVQs.
However, Martin Cross of the RSA said that the original committee set up to review vocational qualifications before the establishment of the NCVQ had recommended a limit on awarding bodies.
Roy Harrison, head of training policy at the Confederation of British Industry, said he understood the concerns of the larger awarding bodies but it was wrong to prevent new bodies seeking accreditation. "There may be a small body which has the confidence of a particular occupational sector."
If too many awarding bodies offered the same NVQs, the market would ensure that only some of them survived. "There is a need for stimulation and competition to give the best service for customers," he said. "Those which do not make enough money will drop out."