Casting the learning net a little wider

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
QCA director Ken Boston says his organisation is focused on the right qualifications for everyone

High-quality vocational learning and qualifications are the key to developing the workforce in this country. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and a range of partner organisations are committed to developing these often neglected areas which rarely make the headlines, despite their national importance.

Guarding standards in education and training from one year to the next is an absolutely necessary - though insufficient - condition for QCA's existence. We are seen as too schools-focused and overly concerned with general qualifications - a perception that has been hard to dispel after the problems with A-level grading in 2002. I have always cared passionately about skills, and much of my work in New South Wales was in further education.

If the public sees academic qualifications as more valuable than vocational ones, I am unsure why and I will not pontificate on the roots of the problem. In Britain in 2003, Latin might well be a more valuable subject for some students - it helps careers in law and medicine, for instance. But if a student is set on a career as an engineer, then the value of a vocational GCSE in engineering is clear. Value and esteem lie not in the label on the "qualification tin" but in the extent to which a qualification meets the needs of its users - learners, employers and higher education.

Qualifications enable you to develop learning further, whether inside or outside the workplace, and they have a key role in personal development.

But further respected qualifications that meet the needs of employers are essential if we are to develop this country's workforce. We should all want more young people to qualify in subjects, develop the skills needed to improve their own progression, strengthen their company, and ensure that Britain continues to remain competitive internationally.

We have created a "workforce development" division to build and promote a greatly simplified national qualifications framework that will include a clear vocational qualifications road map - helping businesses and learners to identify the qualifications that are right for them. The revised framework will help learners to identify progression routes far more easily.

New regionally based teams will be created to engage directly with stakeholders across England and Northern Ireland. We intend to join forces with regional development agencies, training providers, sector skills networks and local learning and skills councils to identify particular patterns of skills needs, and to ensure that the national system is capable of an effective response. Their mission will be to stimulate vocational learning and ensure that qualifications admitted to the national framework reflect the changing needs of employment.

QCA will work with partners to meet the growing demand for workforce training funded by the LSC. Our critical task will be to ensure that, as awarding bodies turn national occupational standards into qualifications, those qualifications are quickly and efficiently accredited and entered into the national qualifications framework.

The qualifications system must be more responsive to business needs.

Business communicates with the sector skills councils, which in turn communicate demand for qualifications to awarding bodies. Awarding bodies then approach QCA to seek accreditation for new qualifications. We intend to give awarding bodies the responsibility of ensuring that the awarding process is sound. QCA will adopt a quality assurance role rather than scrutinising the fine print of every submitted qualification.

This will increase the flexibility and responsiveness of the qualifications framework, attracting employers that are put off by perceptions of inflexibility. For instance, satisfied that the quality of the qualifications is assured, QCA has recently accredited Microsoft IT awards into the national framework, and other company qualifications will follow.

QCA also has a free-to-access website (www.qca.org.ukopenQUALS) specifically designed to meet the information needs of employers and learners. It offers detailed information about all qualifications that are part of the national qualifications framework.

Most qualifications in the national framework are now made up of separate units. QCA is working with awarding bodies to consider how employers and learners can take full advantage of this flexibility. In particular, we are looking at ways of tailoring national qualifications to the needs of particular regions, companies and individuals. We are also working with partner bodies to establish how the awarding of credit, based on credit principles already developed by QCA, can recognise learning within units and whole qualifications, thus increasing flexibility, take-up and achievement.

QCA's work lies at the heart of the Government's skills strategy and emerging 14-19 policy. The QCA is uniquely placed to support lifelong learning through its expertise and experience with curriculum, assessment and qualifications for all learners. We are more determined than ever to serve our many stakeholders in schools, colleges, companies and the wider community. Working with national and regional partners, we look forward to supporting the delivery of learning opportunities for all, which will indeed be the envy of the world.

Ken Boston is director of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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