Forced to draw his own keyboard and struggle with incompetent tutors, Gerry Smith was scandalised by his business admin course. Question: What's the difference between a piece of scrap paper and a National Vocational Qualification certificate?
The joke, such as it is, is on unemployed adults on the Training for Work NVQ scheme which was attacked in the press recently as "a vocational charter for cheats". Some educational professionals have described the scheme as "poorly policed" with inadequate external checks on the course instructors' assessments of their students.
Since funding increasingly depends on pass rates, there is every incentive to pass students who barely understand what is required of them. James Paice, the employment minister, acknowledged that the scheme had a credibility problem in January: "I am very conscious that NVQs have their critics . . . There must be no scope for abuse in their award."
NVQs are not always an effective way to re-skill unemployed adults. Completing the courses appears to make minimal difference to their job prospects. Government statistics showed that from April 1992 to March 1993 only 21 per cent of those who finished their training reported finding full-time jobs. Significantly 20 per cent of those who dropped out of the course also found full-time employment.
Last summer I took an NVQ Business Administration course at a training centre funded by a training and enterprise council. It was promoted as equivalent to A-levels but with a solid grounding in information technology. The course entailed two or three six-hour days a week and ran for just over two months. The "trainers" appeared to have no training in how to teach and often displayed only superficial understanding of their subject. Computer skills were taught by someone who knew less about common business software than I did. And staff behaviour was erratic: one office communications tutorial ended in embarrassed silence after the instructor screamed abuse at a trainee who asked what "fully blocked" meant as an instruction for drafting memoranda.
The entrance test should have alerted me. I was supposed to do a five-minute typing speed test on an elderly electric typewriter. Very 197Os. The interviewer left the room, and after I had typed about 20 words, the machine seized up. I fiddled with a couple of knobs; the carriage shot off and crashed to the floor. The interviewer returned, looked at the dismembered typewriter, said: "Never mind, you'll do", and signed me up.
External verifiers are supposed to sample about 10 per cent of course portfolios. Yet the NVQ manager at my training centre boasted that the verifier had agreed to pass her current batch of students "on the wink".
Another tutor wrote an assessment pack which was supposed to reveal the knowledge we had acquired on our NVQ course. She encouraged her students to pass around their completed assessment packs so that those who didn't know the answers could copy from those who did. This was how the group gathered evidence of competence in "transmitting and receiving electronic information" though there was neither fax machine nor modem in the building and most of the students had never used such equipment before.
The popular image of the Training for Work scheme is that it provides vocational certificates for unemployed people who lack formal qualifications. In fact most of my group were graduates. Those that weren't had substantial job experience. One had been a newspaper court reporter, another had spent years doing financial administration at a large department store.
We had all been hooked by the promise of high-quality IT training, specifically in using word processors, spreadsheets and relational databases. What we got was a course outline book of Byzantine complexity and a couple of pencil-and-paper exercises in totting up petty cash. Explanations of the arcana of cross-referencing of performance evidence and knowledge evidence took up about two weeks. Then more weeks of Cosmopolitan-standard personality quizzes, while we waited for the promised computers to be delivered. All this, remember, at public expense. Last year's Training for Work budget alone was Pounds 702 million.
When the IT element of the course finally got under way, it started off on the blackboard. We were encouraged to copy a diagram of keyboard layout, and yes, practise pressing the keys on our drawings. As background on the information technology revolution, we were told that Microsoft's Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple Computer, were both former employees of IBM. That's about as factual as Snow White turning up in a fairy tale as Cinderella's long-lost sister.
Eventually the computers arrived. Standing amid a welter of cardboard boxes, with half the consignment dead on arrival, the course tutor said, without a flicker of irony: "I don't see that I'm here to teach you things. I believe that these courses are about empowering the students."
Despite my disenchantment I stuck the course out. Many don't. Recent Employment Gazette statistics showed that in 1993 less than 25 per cent of people left Training for Work schemes with a qualification. Yet the proof of the pudding, finally, is in how course-leavers get on in the job market.
How do prospective employers react to job seekers who have been Trained for Work? After the course I took my CV, now with added NVQ, around half a dozen of the biggest employment agencies. What the agencies wanted were minimum word processing speeds of 50wpm. The formal requirement for NVQ III is 35 words per minute.
Agency opinion was that muddling through a few Toytown database exercises was all very well, but that anyone with a typing speed of below 45wpm wasn't worth registering. Their responses to my NVQ sales pitch were summed up by one exasperated placement executive: "Do leave off, these things aren't worth the paper they're printed on."