Target for level 2 misses the point

28th April 2006 at 01:00
It is difficult to find anyone who disagrees with the principles behind the skills strategy. Re-directing resources towards the poorly qualified is widely accepted. But the level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) target is another story altogether.

There is growing evidence that a target of every adult reaching level 2 - and the associated entitlement to free study up to level 2 - is poorly understood, ineffective, and unwanted by many of those it aims to help.

There is an urgent need to look again at how this part of the strategy is being put into practice.

The first problem is that the target is hard to understand. Level 2 is reasonably clear, though it is hardly the stuff of everyday speech - most people have to be told whether their qualification is level 2 or not.

But notions of a "full level 2" or sometimes a "full-fat level 2" are obscure even to professionals, and among the few who do understand there are many who would dispute whether an NVQ 2 - typically achieved after 50 hours' supported learning - is really equivalent to five A*-C grade GCSEs.

Whatever one thinks of the higher education target - half of school leavers to experience higher education - it is a lot easier to describe than to bring about.

The obscurity of the target wouldn't matter so much if it was helping to improve things on the ground. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that it isn't.

Every contact with colleges suggests that the level 2 entitlement is poorly understood by the public and having only a marginal effect on college recruitment. This lack of interest is reflected in Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) projections, which show that serious change is needed if the target is to be met.

Econometric analysis carried out by Frontier Economics for the LSDA shows that about 100,000 extra learners per year need to gain full level 2 qualifications to get on target. More important, however, the work gives clues about why this is not happening.

For example, the largest group of those without a level 2 are in skilled occupations. Why would they want a level 2 when they are already doing jobs that go beyond it? Many already have between one and four good GCSEs. This may explain why more than a third of those getting their first level 2 do so by going directly to level 3 - the so called "level 3 jumpers". The recent announcement of a level 3 entitlement for young adults is therefore a step in the right direction.

An analysis of rates of return also helps to explain the weak demand for level 2. Although getting academic qualifications at level 2 pays off handsomely in increased earnings, research to date suggests that the same is not true for vocational qualifications, and that there is no wage advantage at all in getting an NVQ2.

There is some evidence that NVQs taught at work provide a higher return, but the most likely explanation for this is that employers choose to train the best staff. It is unlikely that persuading employers to train the rest of their staff will have a similar effect.

More detailed work on financial returns reveals a more complex picture.

First, a sector analysis suggests that NVQs at level 2 do have value in some jobs - energy and water for men, and education and health for women.

Interestingly, these are the very sectors in which qualifications are increasingly required as a precondition of employment.

Those working with gas, electricity or children are rightly required to demonstrate competence through qualifications. It is not surprising that those who gain such qualifications gain an advantage.

Second, part of the reason why lower-level NVQs are associated with low returns is simply that many NVQ candidates are in low-wage sectors. Care is a good example.

So when further analysis was carried out by Frontier Economics for the LSDA, controlling for occupational differences, they were able to show a consistent positive wage benefit from getting an NVQ2 compared with having no qualifications.

This last point is crucial. The easiest way to hit the target is for the Learning and Skills Council and providers to focus on those who are almost there - whether working in skilled jobs or having part-qualifications.

Evidence suggests that people will pick up the qualification if it is made easy, as in the employer training pilots, but it is not clear that it will do them any good.

On the other hand, the group which has no qualifications would probably benefit, but it is harder to reach. The risk is that too much pressure to hit targets will lead to providers concentrating on the large, easier group that is almost there. As they say, "Hitting the target but missing the point."

Mick Fletcher was until recently research manager at the LSDA and is now an education consultant

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