Wendy Nash reviews a collection of writing on the achievements and future of vocational education in the UK.
It is good to read something which concurs with your own views and I felt this with some of the contributions in Outcomes, Learning and the Curriculum, edited by Dr John Burke of the University of Sussex. This volume is made up of a series of papers written by researchers and developers who have contributed to the development of the vocational education framework in this country. There are observations, opinions, ideas and suggestions about how the framework should evolve or be used and several theories on how it can influence future curriculum development.
Several contributions are idealistic in their descriptions of how the concept is being applied, and although Gilbert Jessup speaks of open access for all as an advantage of the system, the very nature of his argument and overview highlights its inaccessibility to unemployed people. The frequent reference to workplace learning and the collection of evidence emphasises that NVQs in particular are qualifications which are meant to be achieved in the workplace. Various initiatives by the Government have meant that unemployed people are encouraged to participate in training programmes which lead to the achievement of NVQs, but for many of these people work placements are difficult to find and much of the qualification is achieved on a simulation assignment basis. It would be good to see some of the thought and theoretical analysis being applied to the question of how competent these candidates are away from the safety of the training centre.
Paul Ellis in his paper "Standards and the Outcomes Approach" argues that the outcomes approach - which is what NVQs and GNVQs are based on - is good and reliable "if done with vision and imagination". I absolutely agree. The problem, however, is that it is often not done this way. Perhaps further research could be carried out on how to educate the deliverers in order to help them to develop this flair and vision. With money or funding often the main motivator, we are in danger of perfecting a system of "conveyor belt" qualifications. To those with similar concerns Stephen Steadman's paper gives hope - others are thinking in the same way and are trying to determine ways of resolving this problem.
David Robertson writes wisely on issues of progression. I would have liked to see another issue addressed within the NVQ framework: how to explain to candidates that completing one level does not automatically mean progress to the next level. This indicates a lack of understanding on the part of candidates and providers which must be rectified.
The focus on the outcomes model in the first part of the book highlights the need for a cultural change in many of the traditional educational establishments but does not ignore the process by which people learn. Several examples are examined and the need for sound understanding and relevant knowledge is emphasised.
There are contributions which address modularisation, flexible learning and individual learning styles, assessment, GNVQs and core skills, quality and many others. The introduction and overview sets the book in context and contains a summary of all the contributions. This is most useful and it will help readers to focus on the chapters which are relevant to their work.
The book is written in scholarly language but the front cover, with its redundant apostrophes, does no favours to the editor or the publisher. These are nowhere repeated inside book. Oh, and Croydon is misspelt on the back cover!
Wendy Nash is NVQAPL co-ordinator (external) Croydon College.