The first review of standards of national vocational qualifications has revealed a gap between employers' expectations and provision. Lucy Ward reports
A mismatch between national standards of training and individual employers' needs has emerged as a key concern in the first major review of national vocational qualifications.
In Gordon Beaumont's review of the top 100 NVQs and their Scottish equivalents published this week employers voice strong criticisms of the way the qualifications work.
Though the majority of employers responding to the Beaumont committee's consultation support NVQs in principle, they are concerned over the way standards of competence for employees - the lynchpin of of the qualifications - are expressed.
"A key problem with standards is that they have not been addressed to anyone," said Mr Beaumont. "They have been trying to please everyone and have ended up pleasing no one."
The report acknowledges views on NVQs vary widely according to the sector and size of the organisation involved. While some see only a need for their specific job requirements, and resist take-up where the specification does not fit closely with the employers' needs, others see "too narrow a focus which does not provide for the broader skills necessary to meet changing demands".
Concerns over breadth of competence are closely tied in the report to the complex, jargon-ridden language used to express standards. As a result, the committee's research revealed, employers and other users end up rewriting the standards to make them more comprehensible, at the cost of time and money.
Meanwhile, adding to the picture of confusion, candidates were left unsure of the competences they were aiming for while assessors and verifiers had different understandings of the standards they were judging.
The report recommends swift moves to ensure only plain English - or Welsh - in all documents, and to simplify the form and structure of standards.
It also proposes that there should be only one set of standards of competence for each occupational area which should be directed at employers rather than trainees or assessment bodies. To ensure smaller employers - who are currently far less likely than their larger counterparts to offer NVQs - are not squeezed out, training in cutting-edge developments likely to be the preserve of larger firms would be an optional part of qualifications. Such elements might become compulsory as the sector advanced.
The Beaumont report also highlights the need for improvement in the quality of assessment, acknowledging "much justified criticism", and calls for fresh guidance on best practice.
It recommends further research into the inclusion of external assessment in NVQs, but calls from some of those consulted for the system to be widely adopted have been resisted.
Lead bodies in each sector would instead be given a choice for selecting the assessment method, subject to approval through accreditation.
Linked to concerns over assessment is employers' tendency to mistrust the quality of vocational qualifications delivered in a college or by a private provider as opposed to those delivered by other employers, who "have little or no incentive to cheat".
The criticism of non-workplace training "casts doubt on the credibility of the entire system", warns the report.
For those employers reluctant to use the workplace as a classroom until staff are equipped with basic knowledge and understanding, the committee recommends converting the traditional qualifications currently competing with NVQs into so-called part one NVQs. These would act as preparatory qualifications to NVQs and would be available both to employees and to unemployed candidates.
Many employers were putting their staff through existing preparatory courses, only to find they were not compatible with NVQs, said Mr Beaumont. Others had turned to colleges to create tailor-made preparatory courses off-site.
College-employer partnerships would be a key to change, he added. However, on-the-job learning would remain as a firm option in a package designed to offer employers maximum flexibility.
* Ministers are asked to confirm that national vocational qualifications (Scottish vocational qualifications in Scotland) are here to stay.
* All standards for NVQsSVQs should spell out relevant core skills for the job.
* Plain English (Welsh) must be used in all documents.
* All organisations should eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy.
* The structure of the written standards should be simplified.
Guidance is needed on the writing of specifications to support NVQSVQ standards.
* The 1995 criteria from the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and Scottish Vocational Education Council (SCOTVEC) should be reviewed in 1999.
* New guidance and examples of best practice should be given on assessment, the use of portfolios and simulation.
* Guidance on the selection of assessment methods should be issued by the NCVQ and SCOTVEC.
* Further research is needed to test the value of external assessment and all assessment methods to be used should be approved by the councils.
* All traditional qualifications competing with NVQsSVQs should be made compatible with the NVQ framework.
* A new NVQSVQ structure should be in place by December.
* There should be a common funding policy to back all workplace vocational qualifications.
* As good information is scarce, an information strategy should be agreed nationally.
* Better marketing is needed to help implement NVQs more widely.
* Bad practices must be eliminated - excellence should be built into strategy.
* After this review, no further structural or process changes should be made before the end of the year 2000.