Viewpoint – Graduate Nation.

A recent Government White Paper proposed the introduction of General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) to rationalize the British education system. Under this scheme, those who left school at 16 would be able to enter higher education on the strength of vocational qualifications. Dick Evans explains the workings of this radical new approach and argues that such a system will give Britain’s workforce the flexibility necessary to maintain the nation’s position in an increasingly competitive world.

At last this country has realized that it must invest in post-16 education and training, not only for its existing workforce but for that of the future. This ambitious goal can only be achieved by the development of vocational qualifications and the expansion of further education, two forms of education which have, until now, been victims of prejudice. While vocational qualifications were seen by many as inferior to the supposed gold standard of A Levels, colleges of further education (FE), despite a long and credible histoiy, were seen as second-rate institutions when compared with sixth forms and universities.

International comparisons show vividly this country’s poor track record in training and retraining. Too often Britain has adopted short-term views on education and training, jumping from one scheme to another without allowing adequate time for effective implementation or evaluation. Meanwhile, many of our competitors have taken a longterm strategic view to develop and implement curriculum reforms. For example, in emerging economies such as Taiwan and Korea, major investment in education and training is being made over the long term, while in Europe, there is a tradition of training which society holds in high esteem.

Recent pronouncements seem to indicate that this country and its Government have put FE and, as a consequence, vocational qualifications, at the top of the agenda. From April 1993 the new FE Sector will be established, comprising FE, tertiary and sixth-form colleges – 485 intitutions in all. This, coupled with the intention to increase the fulltime-equivalent student numbers by 25% over the next three years, indicates that for the first time post-16 education and training is centre stage. In addition, the National Education and Training targets recently proposed will set the scene for a more qualified and flexible workforce. Most of these targets are referenced to the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) (see below for details).

Foundation Learning Targets:

  • 80% of young people to reach NVQ Level II (or equivalent) by 1997;
  • Training and education to NVQ Level II (or equivalent) to be available to all young people who can benefit;
  • 50% of young people to reach NVQ Level III (or equivalent) by 2000;
  • Education and training provision to develop self-reliance, flexibility and breadth.

Lifetime Learning Targets:

  • All employers to take part in training or development activities by 1996;
  • 50% of the workforce to be aiming for NVQs (or units towards them) by 1996;
  • 50% of the workforce to be qualified to at least NVQ Level III (or equivalent) by 2000;
  • 50% of medium to large organizations to be ‘investors in people’ by 1996.

(The relative values of NVQs can be more easily understood by comparison with traditional qualifications: NVQ Level II is equivalent to at least four GCSEs (grades C to A); and NVQ Level III is equivalent to three GCEs or the Business Technology Education Council National Diploma.)

Although these targets may seem ambitious, they are well below those set by our main world competitors.

The low profile of NVQs has, in part, been due to uncertainties about their value and difficulties with implementation. A principal problem has been the large number of validating and examining bodies associated with vocational qualifications; while many have a long and credible history, others suffer from a narrow and inflexible focus on particular professional or technical skills. Autonomy of the bodies has given rise to incoherence and, as a result, has hampered smooth progression of students. A further problem has been the public’s limited awareness of the availability of these awards. Information about vocational qualifications has been limited and not easily accessible. Too often it was left to staff in Further Education (FE) colleges, careers officers, careers teachers and training officers to inform young people and employees of the opportunities available.

The identification of these problems brought about the establishment in 1986 of the Review of Vocational Qualifications. As a result, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) was set up with one of its primary objectives being to rationalize and simplify the qualifications jungle.

The resulting NCVQ framework is based on five levels, spanning from foundation to graduate/professional, with assigned values to which all future vocational qualifications must be aligned.

A key feature of the framework is the assessment of performance as required in the work-place. This allows much greater flexibility in education and training, particularly with regard to mode, place and timing of learning. Such advantages must be welcomed in the light of the probable requirements of the British workforce in the next millennium. Three stark and sobering statements show how important flexibility, multi-skilling and retraining will become:

  • The knowledge half-life of an electrical engineer is four years (many more professions are following this trend);
  • 75% of the people working today will still be in work in the year 2000 (assuming the recession ends and the UK still has a workforce);
  • Technological advances, in information technology for instance, are likely to continue to have a great impact on society and the way we work. It has even been estimated that 75% of the technologies of the year 2000 are yet to be discovered.

An effective platform must be established to maintain a qualified and flexible workforce if this country is to remain able to adapt to increasingly dynamic and competitive world markets. This will require a commitment to continued up-skilling and re-training of our existing workforce. No longer can a qualification gained ten or twenty years ago be seen as a passport to one’s career. Surely, qualifications written in ink that has long since faded have no place in this age. And to maintain a competitive workforce will cost money: both the government of the day and employers will have to invest in training, both initial and continuing.

The National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) is beginning to achieve many of its objectives and, increasingly, employers and higher education institutions are beginning to recognize the purpose and value of NVQs. However, the absence of a grading structure in occupationally focused NVQs (where assessment is criterion referenced and, consequently, students are deemed either competent or not yet competent) presents a potential problem for those individuals hoping to go through admissions procedures to, for example, higher education.

The recent work of the NCVQ has resulted in the identification of several requirements which must be met if NVQs are to become successfully established. These include the following: the need to achieve parity of esteem between vocational and academic awards (such as A Levels); the need to increase the breadth and balance of both vocational and academic awards; the need to enhance opportunities to enter higher education through the vocational route; the need for many pupils in schools to pursue vocational awards.

The Government’s recent White Paper, aided by several key publications, has brought this debate to a head. The White Paper, in an attempt to tackle some of the above issues, proposed a General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) which ‘should cover broad occupational areas and offer opportunities to develop relevant knowledge and understanding to gain an appreciation of how to apply them at work’. The White Paper stated quite clearly that GNVQs should:

  • offer a broad preparation for employment as well as an accepted route to higher level qualifications including higher education;
  • require the demonstration of a range of skills and application of knowledge and understanding relevant to the related occupation;
  • be of equal standing with academic qualifications;
  • be clearly related to occupation-ally specific NVQs, so that young people can progress quickly and effectively from one to the other;
  • be sufficiently distinctive from occupationally specific NVQs to ensure that there is no confusion between the two;
  • be suitable for use by full-time students in colleges and, if appropriate, in schools, who have limited opportunities to demonstrate competence in the workplace.

Like NVQs, GNVQs will be developed to cover five levels. GNVQ Level II, like the occupationally specific NVQ, will be equivalent to at least four GCSEs grade C or above, whilst Level III will be equivalent to two GCE ‘A’ Levels. (Note the difference with NVQ Level III – this is a point of contention). At present the GNVQs are in the early stages of introduction; approximately 100 institutions in the academic session 1992/93 are involved in this first phase. The NCVQ has responsibility for hallmarking GNVQs as it does for occupationally specific NVQs. In the first phase of introduction the three major awarding bodies – namely the Business Technology Education Council, City and Guilds of London Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts – are working closely with the NCVQ to develop the specifications for GNVQs. The first phase involves five programme areas, each relating to an occupational sector – namely art and design, business, health and social care, leisure and tourism, and manufacturing. Each GNVQ is at Levels II and III.

From September 1993, three more programme areas will be introduced in science, construction, hotel and catering. In subsequent years other programme areas will be introduced, for example engineering and information technology.

Hopefully, GNVQs will widen access to post-16 education and encourage the participation and progression of those who left education at 16. In order to realize this aspiration and, at least, to achieve the National Education and Training targets, the GNVQ and NVQ frameworks must complement each other. If this is achieved, there is a greater possibility of establishing parity of esteem between vocational qualifications and the so-called academic qualifications of A/S and A Level. A further advantage arising from the introduction of GNVQs will be the increasing number of opportunities available for adults wishing to take up part-time studies.

As the NVQ/GNVQ framework becomes established and integrated, the future of the traditional A Level framework will be put in question. Once the number of students participating in the vocational sector reaches a certain critical mass, the need for an integrated framework incorporating both academic and vocational qualifications will be inevitable. This, for the first time, will produce a truly comprehensive and coherent qualification system offering realistic opportunities for students to transfer through an integrated framework. This single framework will provide a series of safety nets, bridges and ladders for individuals engaged in study, reducing wastage, under-achievement and raising the competence of the working population and society in general.

One of the problems with earlier industrial training schemes was that they were ‘time served’. The traditional apprenticeship scheme involved a fixed term in the work place, complemented by outside training and education. As a result, there was little recognition of the individual’s prior learning and/or experience. A further reason for the disappearance of such apprenticeship schemes was the view that they were poorly suited to modem technologies. It is now accepted that it is essential to focus on the individual learner and, through initial guidance and counselling, to recognize and assess prior achievement and work-placed learning.

A great advantage of the NVQ/GNVQ framework is the existence of an established methodology. Further Education (FE) colleges are already beginning to introduce more enlightened provision for students, focusing on individual need and paying particular attention to guidance and counselling at all stages of learning. Colleges are now exploiting the benefits of the NVQ/GNVQ framework, but, again, adequate funding from the Government will be required.

Finally, in order to achieve the laudable aim of sharpening this country’s competitive edge and improving the competence of its workforce, effective training and education partnerships must be established. Partners must include employers, the training and enterprise councils (TECs) and their Scottish equivalents, local employer councils, local education authorities, trade unions, and all spheres of the world of education – primary, secondary, further and higher. Only then will this country have the education system it deserves.

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