Neil Merrick reports on a bid to clear the qualifications jungle and its cowboy operators.
GOVERNMENT-backed and nationally-recognised training standards for all types of job are being designed to bring thousands of dead-end qualifications into line and eliminate cowboy operators.
New employer training bodies begin working with colleges this term to develop the courses which are specifically geared to the needs of the different job sectors.
National training organisations - which have mostly replaced the large number of old industrial lead bodies and occupational standards councils - are trying to ensure training responds to skill shortages while helping colleges to market programmes by giving them the industry's seal of approval.
Andy Powell, chief executive of the NTO National Council, said: "Colleges are looking at NTOs to Kitemark and brand their courses. NTOs know the skill needs of the labour market and where future jobs will be."
The Telecommunications Vocational Standards Council has led the way by paying for new general national vocational qualification units to be written for students hoping to work in the industry. Although there is no GNVQ in telecommunications, candidates taking an advanced GNVQ in engineering can study the new units, based on national vocational qualification level 3 in telecommunications.
St Helens College is offering the new units from this term. Nader Mahamy, head of the college's centre for software development and data communication, said: "They give students a good overview of the industry. When they move into jobs they will already have the fundamental skills and principles to allow them to understand more specialised training."
The standards council inspects other work-based courses run by colleges and private trainers. "We must determine to what level the occupational standards approved by employers are embedded in the training which is available," said chief executive Ian Lorimer. "Gaining our seal of approval will distinguish between trainers providing quality and those which don't. It will help to eliminate the cowboys."
The Steel Industry NTO is similarly helping students taking GNVQs in construction and the built environment to study special units focusing on steel production.
Six colleges, mainly in the north of England, have been declared centres of excellence for steel training with the first students expected to gain the new GNVQ units this summer.
Jackie Hall of the Further Education Development Agency, which helped to fund the project, said steel employers were helping colleges by designing assignments for GNVQ programmes and offering work placements.
Gordon Beaumont, who chairs a panel which recommends which organisations should be recognised as NTOs, said the creation of a unified framework of about 70 NTOs will give industry a more powerful voice. It would also ensure employers take a more strategic view of training. "The old network relied upon voluntary codes and standards. Now we have a Kitemarking process with people having to prove they are worthy of the status."
Skillset, the NTO for the broadcasting and film industry, is developing a framework of related vocational qualifications so that students and employers can be pointed towards courses which best cover the skills required in the sector.
A study two years ago showed 32,000 students taking 400 different media-related courses in higher education alone. RVQs will take in broader occupational areas than NVQs so students are not locked into a specific job too early.
"They will provide industry standards and underpinning knowledge so that students can be assessed for an NVQ once they move into a work environment," said Flora Teh-Morris, of Skillset.
Huw Evans, principal of Llandrillo College in North Wales and a member of the Beaumont recognition panel, said NTOs will help colleges understand employer needs in newer sectors such as telecommunications and leisure and tourism. In the long run, NTOs might well be called upon to Kitemark certain courses but that process was still in its infancy.
"The problem is that colleges have not understood the national workplace for qualifications. Hopefully NTOs will give them that lead to make sure they are offering the real thing," he said.
Potential NTOs must meet strict criteria - proposed by employer bodies themselves during year-long consultations prior to the recognition of the first NTOs in May 1997. The criteria includes demonstrating that they have effective two-way communication with small and medium-sized firms, which should play a greater training role than in the past.
Many NTOs have spent the past year reviewing NVQs in their sector to make the language more user-friendly for trainers, candidates and employers.
By working more closely with small and medium-sized firms, they hope to increase take-up among the working population.
Mr Beaumont said he would be disappointed if numbers gaining NVQs did not continue growing: "It would be a sign that NTOs are not working properly because they are supposed to be employer-driven and reflect the needs of their businesses."
WHAT ARE NATIONAL TRAINING ORGANISATIONS?
National training organisations grew out of Gordon Beaumont's review of NVQs two-and-a-half years ago which identified confusion over the large number of employer bodies responsible for setting training standards and awarding qualifications.
At the time there were about 180 industry training organisations, lead bodies and occupational standards council - many of which have now come together to form NTOs.
The first NTOs were approved in May 1997. There are currently 59 with a further 11 in the pipeline. Some job sectors - notably schools and the police - have yet to come up with firm proposals for an NTO.
Applications for NTO status are considered by a Department for Education and Employment technical assessment group, and then by an independent panel chaired by Mr Beaumont, which sends its recommendation on to the Education and Employment Secretary.
Some sectors had an existing industry training organisation or lead body which was the obvious choice to become an NTO. In the agricultural and commercial horticulture sector, meanwhile, nine bodies spent a year in discussions before coming together to form LANTRA.
Each NTO must have a board, including managers from industry, training experts and employees.
An NTO may have close ties with awarding bodies but cannot be solely responsible for awarding qualifications.