It's time to grasp the nettle

1st October 2004 at 01:00
For the first time, a genuine opportunity exists to establish a coherent, nationwide system of vocational qualifications - and the chance must not be spurned, writes Hugh Pitman.

The vocational training industry was invented in 1982 by the Manpower Services Commission. At that time the Government injected pound;1 billion of new funding into youth training.

It was surprising, though understandable, that there was no requirement imposed upon providers to train to standards. The main point was to get the show on the road.

I well remember the great architects of work-based learning in the UK, David Young and Geoffrey Holland. They visited the head office of the publishing, printing and training firm Pitman plc to win our commitment to this new venture. And we gave it.

We wrote the Pitman commercial foundation course in a few weeks and decided we must train to the respected objectives and standards of the Pitman Examinations Institute, which was then employed in 75 countries and taken by 750,000 candidates a year.

Hundreds, and then thousands, and then up to 15,000 young 16-year-olds each year - most of whom had not achieved a single qualification in 11 years of schooling - came voluntarily on to our JHP training programmes throughout the UK.

To the delight of them and their trainer assessors, nearly all of them gained qualifications at elementary, intermediate or advanced levels, covering a range of office-based skills which were relevant to their future employment and much valued by their employers.

Candidates were tested by the can-do exam - their best effort on the day.

Indeed, young people who had left school at the earliest opportunity accepted and relished the opportunity to show their best side in a well-prepared, adult and commercial environment.

Then along came NVQs. To take the vast business administration field - one-third of all UK employees - the six major awarding bodies were invited to present their wares to the Moorfoot-based Administrative, Business and Commercial Group (ABC Group). Their offerings were then compared with the stated requirements of many hundreds of employers - the manager and the immediate supervisor of the employee - to arrive at what everyone thought would be the optimum solution.

But something went wrong - and only now, after much massaging, are NVQs beginning to be accepted by many employers.

The Scots had got it right: Scottish vocational qualifications had been invented many years before and covered exactly the same ground. Now, more than 20 years on, they have proven their worth. With SVQs in existence, why the government of the moment should have decided to create a parallel system of NVQs is hard to comprehend.

Now, though, there is more than a ray of hope. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity exists to achieve a UK-wide system of vocational qualifications - relevant to the job in hand and acceptable to all.

Naturally, this will lead to a European system, and perhaps more possibilities worldwide.

The establishment of the network of Sector Skills Councils - which are now making swift progress, cover every area of employment and, above all, cover the whole of the UK - gives us a chance to get our act together.

Now is the time to act - to give due responsibility to the overarching lifelong learning sector skills council (LLLUK) and to do all we possibly can to achieve convergence for standards and qualifications - and that includes having the determination to cut through the red tape. Here is an immensely worthwhile job for the Government and its agencies - with real potential benefits for employers and for all those they employ.

Hugh Pitman is chairman of JHP Group Limited, the fifth- largest of the 1,000 independent work-based learning providers. He was the first chairman of the Association of Learning Providers, 1999-2002

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