Qualifying Britain

With the Dearing review complete, Dick Evans takes a fresh look at Britain’s post-16 education provision.

The pervading culture of the free market has a range of consequences to society, some of which are beneficial, while others are destructive and confusing. The effects of the global economy, greatly assisted by the information revolution and the growing influence of multinational companies, now raise fundamental questions about the validity of the traditional paradigms of the nation’s political systems. These transformations are, quite rightly, influencing the way education and training are delivered.

Life-long learning must now be  for all with the ever-accelerating need for an increasing base of knowledge, understanding, skills and competence. This in turn will require improved education and training systems to enhance the quality in the flow of people into work and society.

This country needs to establish realistic national targets for education and training which compare well with our main competitors. The current national targets are already well below those of our main competitors and many of them are not likely to be achieved until the beginning of the next century. There is a need to establish higher levels for the national education and training targets.

The changing nature of work, with an increasing number of people on short-term contracts, will require radical changes to recruitment policies, as well as to educational practices. Fewer people will gain full-time employment within larger organizations and many more will be contractees. Organizations will need to invest heavily in their core staff. The contractees, however, will increasingly need to sponsor themelves in terms of learning in order to gain work, albeit on a short-term basis. Coupled with these changes in the structure of the workforce, larger organizations will continue to ‘downsize’ and ‘outsource’ and will increasingly focus on their core business.

The providers of education and training will need to become more responsive to the changing demands of employers and individuals. Traditional courses will need to be increasingly modularized and unitized and greater recognition given to prior learning and achievement. All this must be set within a national framework for credit recognition and transfer in order to cope with the changing needs of future learners. Much of the traditional provision was based on a time-served approach, with fixed periods for courses, and very often much of the content was delivered in a linear fashion. The students of the future will most certainly need a very different approach. Many of them will be seen as ‘interrupters’. By this I mean that they will enter, exit and then re-enter provision throughout their lives, an important aspect of life-long learning, and the curriculum offers should be more sensitively matched to their ability, their expectations, and the changes that are occurring for people in employment and those who wish to enter employment.

Organization of further education.

In April 1993, colleges of further education became independent from their local education authorities and were funded directly by the Further Education Funding Council. A small number of colleges in the sector, with provision for HNDs and degrees, received separate funding from one of the Higher Education Funding Councils. The funding councils, in some cases, have separate structures for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.

The Government and funding councils have set growth targets for the further sector. These have been set at 24% growth over four years, with approximately 16% more resources, although these have been recendy revised down with an overall growth target of 20% for the sector up to the year 2000, the baseline being 1993 enrolments. At present many of the colleges are struggling to meet to this target, largely due to contradictory Government policies. The drive to introduce greater de-regulation and encourage a free market in post-16 education and training means that more and more providers are now attempting to offer opportunities for people, creating a destructive cutthroat culture. Many colleges already enjoy a very high participation rate for 16—18 year olds and it is difficult to see how one can increase this further when demographic trends suggest little increase in the numbers of 16-year-olds over the next 10 years.

Fig.01 –Future Profiles of Employment

Fig.01 –Future Profiles of Employment

The real harvest is clearly for mature students exploiting previous birth booms and where the national participation rate is still woefully low compared with our main competitors. However, the recent decision not to award discretionary grants to these students is a real barrier for them to return to study. The continued uncertainty about the 16-hour rule, as it will operate under the Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), further causes uncertainty about how one can attract unemployed people back into education. These cuts, along with the reduction of other benefits, make it increasingly difficult for mature people to access learning opportunities and sustain study.

The increased competitiveness between providers often simply diverts people from one institution to another and does not in fact attract new learners. Too often the free market philosophy causes confusion about who actually is the customer. Is it the employer? Is it the local Training and Enterprise Council? Is it the Funding Council? Or is it, as it should be, the learner? A great deal of time and money is dissipated on recruiting students. There is also escalating bureaucracy associated with the need to report to the various Funding Councils and Training and Enterprise Councils which again deflects institutions from their primary purpose of providing a quality service to their students and the need to support the staff. There is nothing wrong with competition or accountability, but the present changes seem to have been introduced far too quickly and have gone too far.

The funding regime.

The Funding Councils now require institutions to ‘do more for less’ and to make significant efficiency gains. This approach is understandable, given that at incorporation, colleges were starting at different points, depending on the budgets they inherited from their local education authorities. However, a regime of convergence has now been introduced which is attempting to bring all colleges within the sector down to a norm cost with a small variance. The sector is very heterogeneous and many feel that this funding approach will produce an homogenized sector unable to satisfy the needs of employers and individuals. A great deal of strategically important provision, particularly in the areas of science, engineering and technology could vanish. The costs associated with this provision are higher than, say, the humanities. The additional costs associated with capital and equipment are not fully recognized, neither within the funding regime or the capital allocations that are made to colleges. The recent move by the Government to introduce the Public Finance Initiative (PFI), whereby private finance houses and banks provide loans to the public sector organizations, will do little to help colleges deal with the necessary capital in areas such as equipment and buildings. Very often this vulnerable provision recruits fewer students by virtue of the recession and the changes and transformations that are occurring within the world of work, particularly in manufacturing, construction and science. This increases the unit cost of that provision well beyond the variance that the funding methodologies allow. There is already evidence that many colleges are reducing provision in these areas. If this country is to regenerate and rebalance its manufacturing base, the funding methods need to be reviewed and a greater differentiation introduced into the funding regime that will encourage institutions to continue this provision in science, engineering and technology. Clearly, it will be different to that of the past, but as colleges work more closely with employers, then it is important that sufficient funding is made available for them to carry out the necessary changes, both in teaching and learning, and in the content and the way they manage the delivery of knowledge, understanding, skills and competence that is required for the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs).

Education and training are now exposed to a more free market approach and increasing deregulation. The adoption of simplistic market models precipitates many of the problems mentioned above. It is interesting to note that the majority of our competitors have highly regulated and, as such, far more effective educational and training systems. These operate within national longterm strategies, coupled with a clear view of the economic consequences of investing in education and training in order to maintain national and global competitiveness.

In many ways some of the greatest changes have occurred within the curriculum. There is now a tripartite qualification system for the country: the academic route

(GCSE/ ‘A’ level/degrees); the GNVQs and the occupationally specific NVQ route.

There is a fourth route, which is not part of the national framework. This has become known genetically as the ‘Access route’. The framework has proved a great success in opening up access for mature people wishing to return to study and many of these have progressed to higher education or entered employment.

It is important, however, that these framewoks are not seen as totally separate. Increasingly, colleges are developing combination/ hybridization provision across the frameworks, e.g. a GNVQ plus an ‘A’ level.

Recently, a number of major reviews have been undertaken of the tripartite qualification system, including the Dearing Review of the 16—19 qualifications, the Capey Review of the GNVQ assessment, and the Beaumont Review of 100 NVQs/Scottish Vocational Qualifications. The full implications of the recommendations made by these reports are still to be considered and recognized. Dearing, sadly, has not proposed any radical changes, for example a single unified framework bringing together the academic and vocational curricula. Hundreds of pages and 198 recommendations do not, in fact, bring about any real major improvements to the current scene. It recommends that GNVQs be renamed ‘Applied A levels’ and ‘core skills’ be replaced with ‘key skills’. Just as the currency of these titles was becoming understood, a highly questionable set of name changes occurs. The whole document, from its initial terms of reference is obsessed with the supposed ‘gold standard’ of A levels. Yet again, a real opportunity to reform the qualification systems of the future has been lost. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that little reform has been proposed on A levels which have been around for over 40 years, while the GNVQ, a mere youngster of three years, is subjected to significant change. Institutions will now have to be even more creative in horizontally managing the national frameworks for the benefits of the learners of the future.

Building upon the development of GNVQs at Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced Level, there is now a consultation exercise being undertaken by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications on Higher Levels of GNVQ. Accepting that GNVQs still possess a number of difficulties, their achievements are remarkable in the relatively short time that they have been around. There is real evidence that they are opening up access and increasing participation, not only for young students, but also, increasingly, for mature students. They do possess some very innovative and creative approaches to teaching and learning and in spite of all the bad press they have received, they are gaining greater credibility with employers as well as with admissions tutors in higher education. It is important that the GNVQ framework is extended to include the Higher Levels, as they will provide qualifications that are currently lacking in the other two frameworks, namely those of degrees and the higher levels of NVQ.

The diagram below shows the four routes namely Academic, GNVQ, NVQ and Access.

Fig.02 –HE Provision

Fig.02 –HE Provision

Note Higher Education provision provided by HNCs, HNDs, Degrees and professional awards.

NVQs are still relatively new, but do offer an effective form of education and training. Many other countries are now looking at the NVQ approach and its focus on competence. There are still a number of criticisms about the NVQ system. Its critics argue strongly that students are being assessed on what they can do rather than what they should know and understand. It is important to understand that, within the NVQ system, underpinning knowledge and theory are not separately tested, but are inferred. It must be remembered that in the NVQ system the students must show evidence that they can carry out specified tasks and that it is then assumed that the necessary knowledge and understanding have been acquired and therefore does not need to be separately assessed. The NVQ framework is now beginning to have an impact on the education and training system and the millionth student was awarded an NVQ in November 1995.

Many of the problems are recognized, and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) is working hard to remove some of the difficulties and problems. There has just been a review of 100 NVQs and their Scottish equivalents by Gordon Beaumont. Also, John Capey has just completed a review of the assessment regimes of GNVQ. These reviews are important and their recommendations should lead to more coherent curriculum frameworks. They should also influence the Dearing Review.

Also, Higher Levels of NVQs are being studied to see how they best harmonize and align with the higher levels of the academic route, namely HNCs, HNDs, degrees, postgraduate and professional awards.

It is important that whatever happens with the curriculum framework post-16, whether it remains as three identifiable routes or moves towards a more unified structure, it should possess as great a consistency and coherence as possible. This will allow the learner to make progressions and transitions within the curriculum frameworks.

Targets set in 2000 are given below:

Targets 2000.

Foundation learning:

  1. By age 19, 85% of young people to achieve 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, an Intermediate GNVQ or an NVQ level 2
  2. 75% of young people to achieve level 2 competence in communication, numeracy and information technology by age 19; and 35% to achieve level 3 competence in these core skills by age 21.
  3. By age 21, 60% of young people to achieve 2 GCSE A levels, an Advanced GNVQ or an NVQ level 3.

Lifetime learning:

  1. 60% of the workforce to be qualified to NVQ level 3, Advanced GNVQ or 2 GCE A level standard.
  2. 30% of the workforce to have a vocational, professional, management or academic qualification at NVQ level 4 or above.
  3. 70% of all organizations employing 200 or more employees, and 35% of those employing 50 or more to be recognized as Investors in People (IiP).

The Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) and the Scottish equivalents (LECs) continue to develop provision which contributes to the National Training Targets. The Modern Apprenticeship (MA) initiative promises much and offers a real alternative to young people in employment. Youth Training, now almost totally under the Training Credits initiative, also provides opportunities for students who do not wish to remain in sixth forms or go into the further education sector. However, a number of people see that there is a gap. The Modem Apprenticeship is very much focused on NVQ Level 3 at technician level and at present does not cover many aspects of higher craft skills. It could be that, to make the Modern Apprenticeship more successful, its remit should be extended to embrace this very important area of craft, where a demand still exists, and with all the changes that have occurred, a lot of the provision is now not available. As workforces become increasingly organized in teams, all the members of the team must be as highly qualified as is possible and possess the necessary skills, knowledge, competences and graces to perform at the highest levels of effectiveness and efficiency.

In summary, in order to respond to the changing nature of employment and the reality and consequences of the global economies this country needs to develop:

  1. A qualifications framework that is more fluent than is currently the case.
  2. Funding methodologies that work, including adequate financial support for learners.
  3. A long term strategy for life-long learning.
  4. A more regulated system for education and training.
  5. Strategies to strengthen partnerships between employers and educational institutions.

Further reading:

Capey J (1995) “GNVQ Assessment Review”. November 1995.
Dearing R (1996) “Review of 16-19 Qualifications”: Final Report. April 1996.
Beaumont G (1995) “Review of 100 NVQs and SVQs”. HMSO. London.
Evans R (1993) “Graduate Nation”. Science and Public Affairs Spring 1993: 11-14.

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