Wales is the test bed for a new way of learning: mix and match your own, tailor-made course. Joe Clancy reports
After a gestation period lasting more than a decade, a new qualification system is about to emerge in Wales that is set to revolutionise further education throughout the United Kingdom.
By September 2005, students for the first time will be able to mix and match modules from different subject areas to build tailor-made qualifications to suit their own needs.
And if everything goes to plan, a similarly flexible learning system will soon after be adopted by every FE college in the United Kingdom.
After 10 years of attempting to put a programme together, a "Credit Common Accord" has finally been agreed by education bodies in Wales, marking the first major step towards the creation of a credit-based system of qualifications.
It will enable, for example, a student taking a course in plumbing to add customer service, marketing, or business management modules. Business students may be able to add law or accountancy modules to their courses in a way that is not possible at the moment.
"It will be pick and mix in a controlled environment enabling people to have a greater choice," explains Trevor Clark, senior credit framework manager employed by Education and Learning Wales to get the project up and running. "FE colleges will have the authority to have more curriculum choice to be able to mix more programmes together for people who need more flexibility and choice."
The Credit Common Accord will for the first time enable students who abandon courses before completing them to retain credit for the learning they have undertaken.
This will enable them to return to learning at a later date, so they can continue their course without having to start afresh, or to add on to that earlier learning to obtain a different qualification. "Students will not have to go back to the bottom of the ladder all the time," he added.
The credit system is intended to create a culture of "topping up" qualifications throughout life, thereby removing barriers to progression.
The hope is that with such a system more adults will be attracted to learning.
Trevor Clark says his own learning experience is a case in point. He failed his A-levels, but was able to rise up the management ranks in a media and travel company until he reached the age of 28 and realised he could make no further progress without gaining relevant qualifications.
He then began studying for a Master of Business Administration degree, which took him 12 years to complete. "Until I obtained my MBA at 40 I had no recognition for all the learning that I had undertaken since the age of 16," he said.
"Too many people who start on the learning get three-quarters of the way to the end of their course, and then come off it for whatever reason, and get no recognition whatsoever. We need a system where we can capture that learning that has taken place.
"People are getting the skills but not the recognition and cannot transfer that when they move on. The Armed Forces is a prime example where people collect skills but no recognition and often have to start at the bottom when they enter civilian life."
John Valentine Williams, chief executive of the Welsh curriculum authority ACCAC, said rules of combination will have to be developed so that students pick an appropriate mix of modules to achieve a specific qualification.
"The awarding bodies are crucial in the process of mapping the units of learning into qualifications," he said.
"It does not benefit the learner to dumb down qualifications. The rigour and quality in terms of the outcome have to be maintained."
Learners, he said, will build up credits equivalent to the outcomes of 10 hours of assessed learning within eight levels of learning. "It won't be a system in which you can, just by sitting there long enough, become a brain surgeon," he added.
The accord is also designed to enable employers to get more flexible education and training for staff that reflects the particular demands of their businesses.
Trevor Clark gave the example of the NVQ qualification in management.
"There are compulsory parts of that programme that are not suitable for everyone to take. In the public sector for example, managers may not have the opportunity to complete the marketing module because it is not part of their job.
"Programmes have been put together often for the benefit of large organisations where people can move around, but are not suitable for small and medium size enterprises."
The challenge to be faced during the three-year implementation programme is ensuring that the new system will be easy to use and easy to understand for students and employers.
""We want to make sure we do not increase the level of bureaucracy and complexity," says Gaynor Lewis the Welsh representative of City and Guilds.
"If people don't understand the framework, it won't succeed."