Opportunity knocks to reform vocational council

1st December 1995 at 00:00
Just about every aspect of our new vocational qualifications is under scrutiny. Not only is there Sir Ron Dearing. Dr John Capey is reviewing General National Vocational Qualifications' assessment. Gordon Beaumont, the top 100 National Vocational Qualifications, and, waiting in the wings, there is the review of all NVQs. There is also the consultation on Level 4 and 5 GNVQs, and the Government's review of higher education.

But perhaps more significant than any of these for vocational education in the long run is the largely unheralded and unsung review of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications being conducted in-house by the Department for Education and Employment.

Although it is a regular five-yearly monitoring exercise a "prior options review" has been added. This is to determine "whether the functions delegated to NCVQ remain essential to Government and Department objectives" and, if so, among other things, "whether there is scope for merger with or transferring some or all of the functions to another body".

In other words, the future of NCVQ itself is up for grabs. This is too good an opportunity to be missed. The fine mess that vocational education has got into, and hence all the reviews, is mainly down to NCVQ. To be fair it also owes something to the wide-ranging remit NCVQ was given (nine functions in total), but the interpretation has also been idiosyncratic.

Paradoxically, for a body that was avowedly about what a person can do, not how they have learned to do it, NCVQ has become more concerned with the "how" than the "what" of learning.

Astonishingly, for a body established so that we could have confidence in national standards, its deputy chief executive wrote, "what I am proposing is that we should forget about reliability altogether". Incredibly, as the body for setting out qualification requirements, it invented its own ungrammatical language so that everything has had to be translated into a form which employers, candidates and trainers find almost impossible to decode.

NCVQ has created a Procrustean bed on which it has attempted to force everyone to lie. Fortunately, there has been resistance. More than two-thirds of vocational qualifications currently awarded are outside the ambit of NCVQ. In 1995 there were only 13,000 advanced GNVQs compared with the 65,000 Business and Technology Education Council national diplomas. Rather than reducing the confusion of the qualification structure, NCVQ has added to it.

As its various tenets have increasingly proved unworkable, NCVQ has retreated into a dogmatic faith which colours its perceptions.

A fresh look at vocational education will only be possible after a thorough shake-up. The recommendations of Sir Ron, Beaumont and Capey will only come to anything if there is a receptive organisation to implement them.

What, then, should the quinquennial review recommend? There is a strong case for reconstituting NCVQ as the qualifications authority for the workplace and transferring GNVQs to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Both SCAA and NCVQ would in this respect be regulatory bodies overseeing the examining and awarding bodies which would design, offer and promote the qualifications. (Employer-led bodies would continue to set the standards for NVQs.) Others, like John Dunford, president of the Secondary Heads Association (Platform, TES, November 24), would go even further and merge SCAA and NCVQ, but this would create a very powerful monopoly. Monopolies are all very well if you agree with what they are doing, but if you don't, you have nowhere else to go - as New Zealand is finding with its Qualifications Authority.

With qualifications it is important to get the balance right between competition and regulation. The argument for having several competing awarding bodies is to allow for flexibility and responsiveness.

Qualifications, however, are neither a product nor a service, but actually make demands on people. Where organisations are financially dependent on the number of certificates awarded they may be tempted to require a little less and make qualifying a little easier. While, in business, competition generally acts to improve quality, with qualifications it can drive it down.

There has, therefore, to be a strong element of regulation and this could be provided by SCAA and NCVQ. SCAA already has this role for academic awards. NCVQ could be the regulatory body for NVQs. This would require legislation since it is currently a company limited by guarantee set up under the Companies Acts. Of its present functions, it would retain approving and supporting NVQs - reformed in the light of Beaumont - but others, like marketing, would be devolved.

GNVQs are different in that they are taught in schools and colleges, and act as a passport to somewhere else - the next stage of education, or employment. In this they are like GCSEs and GCE A-levels, and they probably belong with SCAA which has the experience in accrediting such awards.

If it is thought important that the applied learning of GNVQs be treated differently from the subject learning of academic awards, then SCAA could operate separate committees for these domains.

My personal view, then, is that we do need an NCVQ - but as a dispassionate regulatory body rather than an evangelistic centre. You may or may not agree. However, at all events, make your own views known.

The nature of vocational qualifications will increasingly impinge on all our lives whether as training providers or employers, as opportunities for ourselves or our children, or as the public of a country that does not quite know how to pay its way in the world.

The quinquennial review is a golden opportunity to reform NCVQ. But there does not seem to have been much consultation and I do not know what evidence is being taken.

Christine Hewitt and Mike Nicod, co Department for Education and Employment, Moorfoot, Sheffield, are the persons to contact if, like me, you have not been approached.

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