Working Away

Dick Evans, Principal of Stockport College of F&HE, considers Curriculum 2000, NVQs and realistic working , environments (RWEs).

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) are currently preparing the specifications for the qualifications and awards that will attach to the new proposed national curriculum framework. This is increasingly being referred to as Curriculum 2000 (C2k).

The framework will be established from September 2000 and one of the new pieces of jargon is associated with the word ‘specifications’, previously known as syllabuses. ‘Specifications’ will recognise the necessary knowledge, skills, understanding and competence that will be assessed for the purpose of awarding a particular qualification in one of the three pathways.

Three major awarding bodies, namely AQA, Edexel Foundation and OCR, are at present carrying out wide ranging national consultations, particularly on the new GCE ‘A’ and ‘AS’ levels and GNVQ award specifications and these will be associated with the first two pathways of the framework. The proposed national curriculum framework is shown in Figure 1 below.

Fig01. Interesting to note that there are some 17000 qualifications that are not part of the NVQs and GNVQs framework. Over the next few years many of these will be approved and located into the proposed National Curriculum Framework.

Fig01. Interesting to note that there are some 17000 qualifications that are not part of the NVQs and GNVQs framework. Over the next few years many of these will be approved and located into the proposed National Curriculum Framework.

In future, national policy will require the regulatory authorities to create a clear, coherent and inclusive qualification framework with all the qualifications nationally recognised, mapped and grouped in terms of purpose and level. As Figure 1 indicates, the qualifications will occupy, in terms of accreditation, three broad areas, namely general, general vocational and occupational, each possessing a series of associated levels of attainment.

The design of the framework is influenced by three characteristics, namely those of freedom, choice and flexibility. The freedom is to be an individual and create a personal route of progression/ transition into work or education/training. The choice is to stay in education or move into work and the flexibility is to be able to transfer skills from one area to another without having to start back at the beginning.

In addition the framework must:

  • be readily understandable.
  • bring the academic and vocational together.
  • offer clear progressional/transition routes possess rigorous standards.
  • be transparent and open to public scrutiny and accountability.
  • embrace new 16-19 qualifications.

The overall strategy that underpins the framework will raise achievement and hence standards, widen and increase participation, engender a culture of lifelong learning and assist the realisation of the skills agenda.

Figure 2 attempts to provide an equivalence mapping, albeit simplistically, between these three pathways, although such exercises are often unhelpful as they can often deny the true purpose and integrity of the qualifications that lie within the pathway.

Fig02. e

Fig02. e

Each qualification route has a particular purpose, but very often employers and other end users wish to see some statement of equivalence. As indicated earlier, most of the consultation has been associated with the general and the general vocational routes with, up to now, very little attention to the occupational pathway which most certainly will be associated with the realisation of the skills agenda.

Major reforms will occur both to the general and general vocational routes and can be summarised as follows:

  • a new reformulated advanced subsidiary (AS) qualification representing the first half of the full A level and worth 50% of the marks. The AS is so designed: to encourage breadth; to be taken up by more subjects being studied in the first year post-16; and to provide better progression opportunities from GCSE into A level study
  • new A level specifications. These will normally be configured into six units to allow candidates to chose linear or modular assessments.
  • a new requirement for a significant element of ‘synoptic’ ‘A’ level assessment
  • some modifications to the maximum coursework limits for GCE ‘A’ level (30% in most subjects)
  • redesigned special papers, intriguingly referred to as ‘worldclass papers’!
  • a revised GNVQ at foundation, intermediate and advanced level
  • a new six unit GNVQ at advanced level, equivalent in size to A level and graded on a similar scale, namely A-E. A small number of three-unit GNVQ qualifications equivalent to a single AS may be introduced in some programmes.
  • a new key skills qualification to encourage learners to develop essential skills of communication, application of number and information technology drawing on evidence and experience from their chosen programme of study.

It is important to note that the new national framework excludes university awards even though many of the higher level awards, particularly at levels 4 and 5 will be equivalent to undergraduate and post graduate study. In future the awards in the framework will be developed and validated by the following processes.

Processes Associated with NVQs (and VQs)

National Vocational Qualifications or NVQs are qualifications which reflect the skills, knowledge and understanding an individual possesses in relation to a specific area of work

A number of organisations are involved in the process of developing, delivering, awarding and preserving the quality of NVQs. The following diagram gives a short profile of organisations involved in the NVQ and attempts to show that process and the key players within it particularly for the occupational pathway.

Fig03. Processes Associated with NVQs (& VQs)

Fig03. Processes Associated with NVQs (& VQs)

As can be seen the QCA is at the centre of this process.

An important, and sometimes undervalued, route is the occupational or work-based pathway for which recognised national vocational qualifications (NVQs) will be the predominant awards. This area presents some particular challenges, not only to the proposed national framework but also to the institutions who are involved in delivering NVQs and other vocational qualifications (VQs). As figure 1 shows, 17,000 awards are still outside the NVQ and VQ recognised regimes. QCA will have a major task in reviewing and reforming the qualifications that will ultimately be recognised, funded and mapped into the occupational pathway. In spite of the creation of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) in 1986, a great deal of work is still needed to rationalise and tidy up this important range of awards. It is also important to remember that NCVQ was merged with the Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority (SCAA) in 1997 to create the Qualifications Curriculum Authority (QCA) following one of the main recommendations of the Dearing Review. A large number of vocational qualifications are still not recognised and are delivered and assessed by a whole range of awarding, validating and professional organisations. One of the driving forces behind the national curriculum framework is to bring a greater sense of order and unity to the qualification system and it is the occupational pathway that presents particular challenges to QCA and colleges in particular. It is important to remember NVQs recognise occupational competence and are based on national occupational standards. QCA and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) in conjunction with Welsh and Northern Ireland equivalents  have joint responsibility for approving all national occupational standards. The evolving National Training Organisation network (NTOs) will have a major responsibility for developing and recognising these standards.

For other vocational qualifications to be approved within the framework they must also be based on nationally agreed occupational standards and have the support of key interest groups, e.g. employers and professional organisations.

These vocational qualifications can also act as progression routes to NVQs certifying achievement of knowledge and understanding outside the work place or providing real alternatives to those unable to gain access to NVQs through work.

These vocational qualifications have, since 1986, shown by their ‘refusal to die’ that they do actually meet a real need and must not be removed without careful consideration of their ‘purpose and value’.

If relevant they most certainly will bring value to the qualification list on the occupational pathway. The ‘specifications’ must recognise the necessary knowledge, skills, understanding and competence that are to be assessed for the purpose of awarding an NVQ and reflect the requirements of particular jobs or tasks in the workplace. Work-based awards Fig l will offer opportunities for high levels of qualifications to the existing workforce as well as initial qualifications for people who wish to enter employment.

It is these last points that clearly are giving concern to employers and particularly to colleges and are associated with what is now becoming known as Realistic Working Environments (RWEs). In order for the candidate (learner) to acquire all the necessary aspects of the recognised specification they must have real experience of the processes associated with any one particular aspect of their work. This, if rigidly adhered to, will reduce significantly the way colleges are involved in the delivery of NVQs. The expectation is that they will interact in direct and real terms with equipment, processes or situations that are occurring in the work place. Simulation will now no longer be recognised as providing the necessary elements for the assessment of the specification within a given NVQ. Increasingly reports from external verifiers (EVs) mention the essential need to achieve more realistic working environments. The recently established Training Standards Council (TSC) has also highlighted the difficulties that colleges experience in delivering work based learning. The TSC has quite rightly raised the issue around the poor co-ordination between on-job and off-job learning and the true effectiveness of assuring the probity and rigour of the work assessment. These important factors raise the issues of the ‘reality’ and lasting value of the learning experience. Another concern is the way colleges manage the learning and its location, still too often preferring traditional day-release or block modes of attendance and study. After all, if this country is to improve the current situation in regard to highly qualified craftspeople and technicians and who in a sense have a licence to operate’ their education and training which must be as close to reality as is possible. It does, however, present many problems to colleges who have in the past attempted to simulate real work situations. Many colleges have very successfully operated hairdressing salons, catering facilities, travel shops and motor vehicle workshops which realise high degrees of reality including reception work, handling money and carrying out real situational work with customers and clients and it is hoped that this will be allowed and encourage to expand and be enhanced in a whole range of programmes of study that have been involved in the past with delivering NVQs.

Very often there are very strong and effective partnerships with employers. Many employers prefer colleges to take on assessment of skills, knowledge, understanding and competence. It provides colleges with a real opportunity to further strengthen partnerships and working relationships with employers. However there are a range of programmes of study that present particular challenges to colleges and subsequently to employers and those more often than not are associated with the more ‘high tech’ programmes of study. Examples are vocational science, engineering, built environment where real working environments cannot be easily created. Simulation most certainly will not provide the necessary criteria for the award. After all, you cannot simulate very easily, in a college workshop scaffolding work at 20 metres or expect students to work with very expensive and high tech equipment.

Again, many of these difficulties can be resolved by working more closely with employers and allowing the learners to access state of the art equipment. It is appreciated this brings with it attendance difficulties – for example, health and safety issues as well as allowing relatively

inexperienced individuals to operate very expensive equipment or maybe complex processes. It is therefore essential at this critical time in the formulation of the national curriculum, that the NTOs work closely with the colleges to see how best they can fit into the new landscape of education and training for people already in the workforce or those who wish to gain qualifications to enter work. It is also essential that colleges move away from “yesterday’s practices’ and the more traditional modes of attendance and study. Colleges MUST develop more on-company-premises provision and hence strengthen the college-employer partnership and assist in achieving greater reality in the occupational pathway. Colleges can and must be important in raising the knowledge, skill, understanding and competence level of the workforce of the future and hence contribute to the National Targets.


  • 1 Dearing, R (1996). Review of Qualifications for top 10 Year Olds. London SCAA.


  • ACCAC The Qualifications, Curriculum and Assessment Authority (for Wales).
  • CAD/CAM/CAE Computer Aided Design/ Manufacturing/ Engineering.
  • CCEA Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (for Northern Ireland).
  • CNC Computer Numerical Control.
  • EVs External Verifiers.
  • LSC Learning & skills Council(s).
  • NCVQ National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
  • NTO National Training Organisation.
  • OCR Oxford Cambridge Royal Society of Arts


  • QCA Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (NCVQ + SCAA).
  • RWE Realistic Working Environment.
  • SCAA Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority.
  • SQA Scottish Qualifications Authority.
  • TSC Training Standards Council.
  • VQ Vocational Qualifications.

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