Give credit where it's due
There are BTecs and VQs and NVQs and GNVQs, diplomas, certificates and awards. There are VCEs, OCRs, HNCs, HNDs, and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.
Fancy getting a qualification? Then take your pick from more than 4,000 currently available to adults, delivered by no fewer than 114 awarding bodies.
This is the qualifications jungle which Carole Stott has been attempting to thread her way through for more than a decade in order to establish a new, more user-friendly and widely-recognised system.
The new system is based on a credit framework - to allow students to pick and mix modules to suit their learning needs, to enable them to construct their own courses, and to obtain credit for courses not completed so they can be returned to later.
Now, after 14 years of devising, revising and planning, Carole Stott is on the brink of achieving her goal. The credit framework she has spent so much time on is on schedule for implementation by 2010. Which is why she has decided to quit the National Open College Network after five years as its chief executive to set up a consultancy called Credit Works.
Since 1990 she has worked on a series of projects involving credit-based qualifications, and she believes that now is the crunch time for reform.
She said: "This is the pivotal time for something I have been advocating for at least 12 years and I think it is going to happen. I want to be a part of it and influence it. To be able to do that independently and impartially is a wonderful opportunity.
"The Government believes the time has come for a credit framework. There is a statement in the Skills Strategy saying the time has come to create a credit framework for adults. There are remits given by ministers to develop and implement a credit system.
"It is the best chance we have ever had to make this happen and probably our last chance."
Those remits from ministers, she said, have been given to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Learning and Skills Council. Her consultancy hopes to seal contracts with both organisations to assist their development work on credit and its application.
She first became involved in the field of credit-based qualifications when working for the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education on a project called Replan in 1990. Constructing a credit framework has dominated her career ever since.
Between 1991 and 1996 she worked as director of the Central Access Network at the University of Warwick, where part of her role was to promote the development of a credit system nationally.
She then spent three years as chief executive of the London Open College Network, where she introduced a fully unit-based system of credit integrated into all aspects of services and awards.
"At that time there were no traditional routes into university without formal qualifications," she said.
"The OCN was about expanding the recognition of achievement so credit could be built up for university access. It was about widening participation.
"We had thousands of students getting into university through that route.
Prior to that, people who wanted to become teachers, lawyers or social workers had to go back to the A-level route, maybe having to take GCSEs first.
"The problem was that A-levels are designed for young people in schools doing two years' classroom-based teaching, and not appropriate for adults returning to education. We introduced a system under which the teaching methods were adult-friendly, as was the content of the syllabus, making sure it was culturally diverse.
"The OCN movement has done a huge job in promoting adult learning throughout the 1990s. The OCN was a very flexible way of securing funding for adult learning that otherwise might have been lost.
"We kept our heads down and got on with it quietly. During the Thatcher era there wasn't much talk about widening participation and inclusion. It was an entirely grassroots, bottom-up development."
In 1999 she became chief executive of the national OCN where she initiated and oversaw development of a new NOCN credit and qualifications framework.
She said: "A credit framework means adult learners, instead of having to fit themselves into other people's structures and boxes, will have a system that is designed for them.
"All that learning and achieving that currently goes unrecognised will have a value. People who are very able and very skilled get excluded because they have no recognition of achievement.
"Qualifications are important because people make judgments and select people on the basis of qualifications, and people get excluded because they haven't got them."
That is why she sees her role as so vital. She said: "The spotlight is on.
The heat is up. That is why I am doing what I am and have left OCN. I want to influence and inform the national system."