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How Europe would see the new British initiative for standardising vocational qualifications.


Among the many recent endeavours of HM Government to improve vocational training is the creation of a body to bring coherence into Britain's so-called `jungle' of vocational qualifications, spawned over the decades and centuries by a myriad of examining and award-granting organisations issuing qualifications at a variety of uncoordinated levels. For those familiar with the qualification systems of Continental Europe (hereafter `Europe', for short), some doubts are nevertheless raised by the principles on which the new National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) proposes to work; these doubts relate, not to details which can safely be left to technical experts for due resolution, but to matters of fundamental principle deserving wider consideration at the outset. We focus here on three issues: co-ordination of levels of qualification with Europe; the balance of theory and practice in qualifying tests; and the potentially self-defeating effects of introducing too low an initial level of validated qualification.

Co-ordination with Europe

First, the new Council seems to have decided deliberately or by oversight to be one pace out of step with the agreed European classification of qualifications: for example, qualifications which the Europeans would put at Level 2 (under the system agreed by the EC body that deals with these matters, known as CEDEFOP) will in Britain be put at Level 3. This is the main level of craft qualification in France and Germany.(1) Being out of step in this way provides room for an additional British low-level qualification, at what is to be our Level 1; this seems to be at present the main level of qualification under our Youth Training Scheme.(2) There is no European counterpart to this level.

What is at issue here is partly only a matter of unnecessarily confusing nomenclature; but partly there is the real and important issue of whether it is ultimately helpful, or ultimately harmful, to designate that special British low Level 1 as a `vocational qualification' rather than, say, as a `basic skill test', or as part of a preparatory stage towards a full vocational qualification. We return to this issue below.

Balance of theory and practice in qualifying tests

Secondly, in addition to the laudable task of putting existing qualifications into a coherent and understandable framework, the Council has taken on the task of radically re-balancing the mix of theoretical and practical skills required for a validated vocational qualification. This is a more ambitious and more laborious task, needing much knowledge of individual trades, and of the best way of designing ladders to successive skill-levels in each trade. It is far from clear that it needs to be carried out by the same body as carried out the urgent job of classifying existing qualifications; nor is it clear that the Council has been given adequate resources for that further task.

Let us begin by setting out two principles guiding the main European countries in testing for the award of their vocational qualifications (we particularly have in mind France and Germany, for which we have carried out detailed comparisons; the systems of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Austria are similar). (a) Both written and practical tests are seen as

necessary. Written tests demonstrate

understanding of general principles, which help in

coping when things go wrong and in coping with

changes in techniques to improve productivity;

they also demonstrate the ability to

communicate precisely in writing on matters related to

one's work, which is increasingly necessary

with the greater complexity and independence

of working resulting from automation. Practical

tests demonstrate competence and dexterity.

Passes in both written and practical work are

required in Europe to attain a vocational

certificate (a poor mark on the practical tests cannot

be offset by an exceptionally good mark on the

written tests, nor vice versa). (b) Externally-set and externally-marked written

tests ensure objectivity and nationwide

currency, and are easy to organise. Practical tests

are more difficult to organise, but the Europeans

usually require that they are carried out in front

of two or three examiners who do not know the

candidate personally, and under examination

conditions (in hotel work, for example, practical

tests are administered in a hotel different from

that in which the candidate served his

apprenticeship). External marking is given great

emphasis in the interest of transferability. The

system must be above `suspicion of abuse', as

British employers put it to us in our recent

comparisons of British and French qualifications in

retailing. The value of vocational qualifications

carried out to national standards, and awarded

by objective external processes, was also

recognised in the recent Investigation into the

King's Cross Underground Fire; the Report

noted that on the day of the disaster `it was likely

that there was nobody who had a nationwide

recognised qualification at Kings Cross Station';

of the Underground's internal (that is, not

nationally recognised) qualifications it said,

`very few staff failed the training course which

qualified them for promotion'.(3)

Without going into the wavering history of British thought on associated issues (for example, why the sound system of practical testing developed by City and Guilds, the prime vocational examining body, was abolished in the 1970s), it is sufficient to say here that the Council's proposed way of proceeding is contrary to these European principles. Qualifications in the UK are to be awarded on the basis of practical competence demonstrated by the trainee in the workplace to his immediate supervisor;(4) there is no requirement for written examinations, nor any requirement for an external examiner. Particular trades may include such requirements (engineering, for example)(5); but if they do not, the Council will not impose them. Some awards require no reading or writing by the candidates (for example, Retail Distribution, Levels I and II), and the Council is prepared to validate qualifications on that basis.(6)

Low initial level of qualification

The final issue relates to breadth of subject matter covered in a vocational qualification. In Britain practical competence is defined, by NCVQ at Level 1, in terms of a narrow range of basic skills; for example, in clothing manufacture, qualification at Level 1 is based on threading a sewing machine, making basic darts, tucks and the like; in hotel work, vocational qualification is based on carrying out a small group of "modules" such as "bed-making" and "answering the telephone". These are not negligible skills; but it is important to understand that the list of basic skills specified for this level require--from our comparative assessments--under a quarter of the training-time spent in Europe on the course for a first vocational qualification in these fields. We know of no European vocational qualifications with as narrow a scope as contemplated for Britain by the Council at its Level 1.

European vocational courses include, aside from trade-subjects, instruction and tests in general educational subjects--native language, mathematics, social studies and sometimes a foreign language. This is seen as important in establishing that a person with a vocational qualification has a broader understanding than someone who can just `do a particular job'. Equally important, it enables the candidate to proceed to higher levels of vocational qualification where these general educational subjects are valuable facilitators.(7) Finally, it leads to less of a division between vocational and general educational qualifications.

Breadth of training promotes flexibility between jobs to the benefit of the trainee and his present employer; it also benefit of the trainee in future jobs which may arise as a result of changes in industrial structure, and thus promotes the adaptability of the economy as a whole. But the employer's and employee's interest do not always coincide; in brief (and in Becker's well-known terms) the employer has an interest in providing the special skills needed for the particular work in hand, while the employee has an interest in the general and transferable skills which he can use in a variety of employments. British training policy seems at present to be giving greater weight to employers' immediate needs for special skills, rather than the general skills which are the concern of European training policy.

A European might wonder whether the NCVQ's Level 1 qualifications will eventually be regarded by the public as showing that the candidate has taken the kind of `test' which requires neither reading nor writing, and thus confirms that the candidate as being of limited ability and certified as such, to boot; and the possessor of such a qualification will find it harder to move to higher levels. The long-term consequence of all this activity will be that the real skill-levels of the workforce will not be raised to European standards.

What went wrong?

It is clear that there is much to be welcomed in the objectives of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. But the differences from what are accepted as essential safeguards elsewhere are matters of serious concern. Too much emphasis has perhaps been placed on employer's needs for personnel capable of doing their immediate jobs, and too little on the longer-term needs of the economy, and of individuals, for flexibility in the face of technological and economic changes. Procedures for certifying the skills of the existing mature labour force are not necessarily the most suitable for young trainees who need to be provided with a broad ladder of graded attainments.

This is not the place to go into the history of the under-education in Britain of those in the "lower half" of the academic spectrum; but it may also be that the Council has misdirected itself in attempting to help that section of the workforce for whom it is better not to ask whether they can read or write, but simply whether they can do something. The Council has put on its banner the slogan of Competence Based Assessment. This may carry an enviable American cachet, redolent of a more-or-less respectable philosophical pragmatism. It is not perhaps always understood here that CBA arose in the US in a quite different context. It related to reforms in the training of school-teachers requiring the addition of a period of practical teaching-probation before a teaching certificate was issued in place of a system which issued certificates merely on the basis of attending courses, for example, on child psychology and mathematics.

Most Europeans would agree that their own systems are imperfect, in need of updating, and so on; but they would be astonished to find that radically new principles for the award of vocational qualifications were being adopted on the basis of notions that are still in a debatable stage, at the best.

No one, of course, objects to practical testing; quite the contrary. The objections to the Council's proposals are (a) to the reliance on this as the one essential element, (b) to the use of workplace supervisors as assessors rather than independent examiners, and (c) to the narrowness of the skills required for qualification.

NOTES (1)The `main craft level' (for example for electrician, mechanical fitter) is usually reached after three years' apprenticeship; it corresponds in Britain to the standards of City and Guilds part II examinations. (2)It is rumoured that the Government proposes to set NVQ Level 2 as the standard for the YTS; that will not of course be confused with the European Level 2 by anyone with the patience to read this Note. (3)Report by D. Fennell QC, HMSO, 1988, p.30 (emphasis added). (4)`Competence must be assessed under conditions as close as possible to those under which it would be normally practiced', said The NVQ Criteria and Related Guidance (NVQ, 1988, p. 9). (5)See the Engineering Council's Annual Report for 1988, p. 17. (6)The clothing industry training board put it very simply in its information sheet, intended to attract candidates: `To get a qualification you do not have to sit exams or do any written tests.' (7)The NCVQ, on the other hand, is at pains to make clear that it does `not imply building into the requirement of an NCVQ knowledge and understanding beyond the needs of the employment to which the award relates' (ibid., p. 10).
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Author:Prais, S.J.
Publication:National Institute Economic Review
Date:Aug 1, 1989
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