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Vocational standards fight for a foothold

Scotvec claims that its flagship programme of Scottish Vocational Qualifications is beginning to "turn the corner" despite a marked reluctance by employers to participate.

Embarrassingly for the Government, which continually exhorts employers and individuals to improve their training and career prospects through SVQs, the Scottish Office has not yet introduced them for all its staff.

Scottish Office figures reveal that only one-third of employers in Scotland are using SVQs, the standard workplace qualification that is critical to the achievement of the Government's education and training targets. This compares with 45 per cent of employers in England.

Officials admit that the uptake is slower than anticipated when SVQs were introduced in 1989. "Regrettably, some of our best employers choose not to use SVQs," says Ed Weeple, the head of the further and higher education division at the Scottish Office.

Marks Spencer is one of those employers. Dion Ashton, the company's assistant financial manager in Edinburgh, is in no doubt that SVQs lose out in large UK companies.

"We are a London-dominated organisation operating throughout the UK and in Europe, so we are very much into NVQs to ensure that all our employees benefit in the same way.

"But we do not discriminate against job applicants if they hold SVQs rather than NVQs: it's simply that we don't use the Scottish qualification as our occupational standard."

The Scottish Office is piloting SVQs in administration and customer care for 52 of its staff in a number of departments. The scheme had not yet been evaluated, a spokeswoman said.

The Royal Bank of Scotland began piloting SVQ and NVQ at level II in Glasgow and Bolton, but has since pulled out of the Glasgow scheme. Helen Ringland, the bank's manager of professional and vocational qualifications, says the long-term intention is to offer SVQsNVQs to 8,500 staff throughout the country, even though it would mean more bureaucracy in dealing with two different awarding bodies. Staff at the RBS mortgage centre in Greenock and its Direct Banking arm will, however, have access to "VQ-style awards", she said.

Other companies cite the specialist nature of their business for the absence of SVQs in their workplace. "There is no off-the-shelf SVQ which suits the nature of what we do," says Katherine Mezzacappa, manager of management development at Ethicon, whose 1,890 employees make wound closure products.

She adds: "There is no lead body in our business to set the occupational standard and develop the qualifications, so we have our own. It is, however, based on the SVQ model of competence. There would be no added value for us in having to go through all the accreditation processes with Scotvec and so on, particularly when Scotvec believes our training is of a high standard."

Motorola, processors of microchips, is another company that has not adopted SVQs but may be helping Scotvec to "turn the corner". It has just put its first group of 31 staff through an SVQ following a quarterly plant review.

"This particular group works with the actual silicon wafers and the SVQ is directly relevant to them," says Tony Joyce, the company's director of external relations. "The key for us is whether the qualification is relevant. We have told our staff we will not encourage them to take SVQs just for the sake of it."

Motorola has a policy that all staff must undergo 40 hours of training a year, directed from the "Motorola University" in Chicago. Mr Joyce says the training is geared to the particular needs of the staff as employees and as individuals.

The precise number of employers who run SVQs is not known. Scotvec said: "Around 30 per cent of Scottish employers have direct experience of SVQs through their workforce or colleagues working towards the qualifications."

Its optimism stems from the fact that there were 30,000 SVQ registrations during 1995-96, a 35 per cent increase on the previous year and equal to the number of registrations that year for the more venerable higher national certificates and diplomas.

And independent research commissioned by Scotvec from organisations with direct experience of SVQs may have messages for the others: 78 per cent believe the qualifications are highly credible, and over 70 per cent say they are relevant to their companies' future plans.

Scotvec has recently given the go-ahead for the Inland Revenue's accounts office in Cumbernauld and the commercial services department of South Lanarkshire Council to run SVQ programmes. This suggests that "SVQs are becoming part of the education and training fabric of Scotland," Scotvec said.

David Miller, Scotvec's chairman, says that one reason for the differential take-up of vocational qualifications in Scotland and England is the higher numbers going on to higher education in Scotland. "So there is a relatively smaller pool for SVQs to fill," he said. Mr Miller adds that the early arrival of modular courses in Scotland, through the National Certificate from 1984, offered employers an alternative, whereas there was a gap in the English market until the introduction of NVQs.

The recent publicity that put question-marks over the standards of NVQs may have hit SVQs as well. "England rushed into NVQs before all the problems had been ironed out," one Scotvec insider said. "So we would not be unhappy with a slower pace in Scotland if it gave us a better opportunity of getting it right."

Scotvec is in the midst of a consultation on more than 800 SVQs in the wake of the Beaumont report. This is due to be completed in 1998 along with a parallel review south of the border by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

Preliminary views from employers, awarding bodies and lead bodies have called for more user-friendly language in the way standards and qualifications are expressed, and a reduction in the paperwork generated by the assessment requirements.

Aileen Ponton, a Scotvec assistant director, says the council is also considering whether external assessment can answer the critics who accuse the VQ framework of lacking "rigour". But she pointed out: "There are many people attracted by the present system who would not get involved in external examinations. This means that we have been able to develop a whole new set of qualifications, in caring for example, which would not have existed otherwise.

"There are various ways of having external assessment without an external exam. Externally set papers internally marked would be one way."

Ian Muir, former education and training manager with Ferranti and a leading member of the Association of Scottish Colleges who was a member of the Beaumont group, says SVQs still have to bridge a credibility gap. "I believe they are right for the workplace but people have not yet recognised the benefits. SVQs have got to suit industry and there are some that don't, which is why they are now being reviewed.

"We've put a lot of change into the system at the one time and people still think in terms of previous qualifications. But with increasing numbers having to re-tool in the course of their working lives, I believe individuals and companies will come to recognise SVQs as the vehicles to help them do so."

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