Ahead of the publication of the results of Ofqual's two-year study into the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) this spring, concerns remain about its structure and impact.
Introduced in September 2009, the QCF was designed to offer a wider range of learners access to the qualifications they need, in a way that suits them.
Drawn up with the help of employers and experts in the FE sector, the new structure - bringing together all vocational qualifications for the first time - aimed to recognise smaller steps of learning and enable students to build up qualifications bit by bit, allowing them to drop out of education if necessary and resume at a later date without having to repeat their learning.
When the Labour government introduced the QCF in 2008, it said it would replace the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), help learners achieve the skills and qualifications that industry was crying out for, and set out how all regulated vocational qualifications should be structured, titled and quality assured.
The framework spans basic entry-level courses up to level 8 - the equivalent of a PhD. By way of comparison, GCSEs at A*-C equate to level 2 and A-levels to level 3. Credits are awarded for completion of a unit, which can then be combined to complete a qualification.
But confusion about what each qualification represents has been exacerbated by the new terminology that came in with the QCF. For instance, what was an Edexcel level 3 BTEC national diploma in, say, health and social care is, under the new framework, known as an extended diploma (equivalent to three A-levels). National certificates are now diplomas (two A-levels) and national awards are subsidiary diplomas (one A-level).
This has created a minefield which employers and university admissions offices must negotiate to decipher what the qualification on the CV in front of them represents.
Exam board Edexcel believes the process has led to the "anonymisation of qualifications". A spokesman said: "Qualifications are not recognised by brand or title in the same way that they used to be. People can get to grips with it, but over many years of transition. It will cause confusion for no obvious benefit.
"With A-levels, people know where they stand. If university admissions tutors aren't sure what the vocational qualifications stand for, the risk is that they are more likely to reject the students.
"If a qualification has 51 per cent of the units at level 3, it will be classed as level 3, even if 49 per cent of the units are only level 2."
Linda Norris, senior adviser for accreditation at Anglia Ruskin University, admits it has been "very time-consuming" for admissions staff to "get our heads around it all".
"I don't know whether everybody has taken the opportunity to source (the details of the QCF), but all the information has been made available for us," she says.
Teresa Frith, the Association of Colleges' senior skills policy manager, blames the problems on the "very, very tight" timeframe in which the QCF was drawn up.
"The terminology is going to cause confusion. We have to try to convert old things into new money; it's not a simple thing," she says.
"Small and medium-sized enterprises are busy running their own businesses. Why should they be expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of our business as well?
"The quality (of the QCF) is not what one would hope. Because of the number of awarding bodies, you end up with a significant number of units that look quite similar. There really needs to be some cleansing of the system."
Ms Frith cites the example of the 600 modules in enterprise; just 60 are regarded as "useful".
And, paradoxically, she feels the framework's aim of encouraging students to take their qualification bit by bit is being discouraged by a system that requires colleges to teach complete courses in one go in order to achieve well in success-rate statistics and obtain funding.
Learners face even more problems if they switch college or exam board part way through a course.
"There's no simple transfer of credit," she says. "There is no software, no process by which you can do that. You might have to end up repeating three units you've done before you moved. There's too much rubbish that needs to be culled, too much duplication and too many non-shared units. We need a mechanism for transferability of credit across geography and providers."
Paul Steer, director of stakeholder relations at exam board OCR, agrees that the project has been plagued by difficulties.
"It is unlikely that anyone involved in the QCF development process would describe it as the ideal model for reforming vocational qualifications," he says. "Almost every single vocational qualification in England has been rewritten to an almost impossible timescale."
He bemoans the fact that the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs) were given a lead role in producing the QCF with "very little resource to carry this out". He adds: "Although some sterling work was done it must be acknowledged that, for many SSCs, their expertise is more in writing occupational standards than creating the building blocks of educational programmes."
Mr Steer describes the QCF criteria - drawn up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency before it was targeted in education secretary Michael Gove's "bonfire of the quangos" last May - as "incredibly complex and restrictive", leaving "numerous questions" which "no one can answer".
"So should we be surprised if Ofqual comes to the conclusion that about three-quarters of the units on the QCF are either of poor quality or non- compliant?"
But all is not necessarily lost, Mr Steer believes. "If we could retain some simple rules about assigning credit values to qualifications where that is desirable and ditch the rest of the QCF paraphernalia, we could yet see the emergence of a strong framework to house good-quality vocational qualifications."
Rival exam board Edexcel has called for 14-19 education to be completely removed from the framework "until it can better cope with the full range of qualifications available".
"The QCF expects shared units to be used, but they don't always meet the requirements of everyone," a spokesman says. "For instance, an adult learner taking a course in customer service and hospitality who is learning in the workplace has needs which are very different from a 16- year-old in a college taking a vocational qualification - they are learning in a quite different way."
Adrian Prandle, policy adviser at education union the ATL, has mixed feelings about the framework.
"We are supportive of the QCF in principle as an opportunity for comparing vocational and academic qualifications, as a way of quantifying them and almost giving them a numerical value next to each other," he says. "It has the potential to do this, but the question is: how quickly can it fulfil its promise? It is complex and people are struggling to understand it; it's taking a lot of work. There is some good stuff in it, and our members welcome things like transfer of credits and recognition of prior learning, but it is proving frustrating."
But David Hughes, the Skills Funding Agency's director of provider services, insists the new course titles are "very similar" to what they used to be, adding that the changes are "more helpful than confusion making". He says the content of units is "up to the learning providers".
He says the system's "innate flexibility" would be improved by the introduction of the personal learning record, which records an individual's qualifications in detail.
Mr Hughes adds that the QCF is in a "transition year" and will be fully operational by September.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says that using "well-known and valued qualifications titles like NVQ, HND, HNC, BTEC, etc" means "learners and employers will not be faced with a plethora of new or confusing titles for qualifications", and insists that learners "can switch provider or exam body without losing any of the learning they have already acquired and recorded".
Rules of combination ensure units can be combined "in a meaningful way", she adds, and trials on providing funding by unit are taking place.
But it remains to be seen how long it will take for the anonymous new qualifications to be recognised, and whether the QCF will make good on its promises.
QCF EVALUATION: RALLYING AFTER A SLOW START
Ofqual is due to publish the findings of its two-year evaluation of the QCF by early March. The qualifications and exams watchdog, along with its regulatory partners DCELLS in Wales and CCEA in Northern Ireland, is focusing on the framework's regulation.
An interim report one year into the investigation found around 10 per cent of the units analysed required "immediate attention", with a further 30 per cent being plagued by "technical issues".
It added that only a "small number of qualifications" from a sample taken in June 2009 included use of "the more flexible technical features of the framework", meaning the "ability for learners to transfer credit does not yet seem to be maximised".
Most qualifications scrutinised were found to be compliant with Ofqual's requirements, and the interim report insisted there was a "generally positive view from stakeholders" in the FE sector about how the QCF was being regulated.
- Original headline: For better or worse: why the QCF is tying FE up in knots