A bogus thing of scraps and smears

October 27, 1994

Last Friday morning, a Business and Technology Education Council quality audit team called on a further education college -- a normal institution in which thousands of students follow courses and complete assessments, where some pass and others fail. The team was carrying out a follow-up stage in what had been a rigorous investigation of the college's standards, after a complaint by a former lecturer.

Meanwhile, in that same college's staffroom, lecturers were reading newspaper claims, by the ex-lecturer and the self-styled "Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards", that they were "not allowed to fail students", that BTEC had a "no fail" policy and that such allegations were "not being investigated". Such is the gulf between fact and fiction in the current debate over the quality of vocational qualifications.

I am not averse to taking part in a constructive debate about the future of vocational education, how to improve quality and ensure the highest standards of consistency.

But I am determined to nail the myths that a few people have been allowed to peddle for far too long. The real story behind many recent reports is not that we have a rotten system but that we have a handful of malcontents bent on discrediting a decent one and undermining others' efforts to improve it.

One only has to look at this summer's GNVQ results to realise that far from being "papered" with qualifications, many youngsters fail to achieve the high standards demanded by BTEC and our fellow awarding bodies.

As for those who succeed, if the 200,000 or so BTEC students who progress to colleges, universities and jobs each year were emerging with low skills and poor knowledge, we would be dealing with a lot more than a few anonymous and usually unsubstantiated complaints. Instead, for every one course this year which attracted a complaint over standards, there were around 2,500 where no one felt the need to complain, even anonymously.

However, if we do receive a complaint, or if our external verifiers identify any problems with a course, we automatically take action. We assemble an expert team and put the course and college in question through intense scrutiny. If we find that the course is failing to reach our standards, we withdraw approval -- and so far this year we have withdrawn approval from five programmes.

However, if we find that standards are acceptable, while we may make minor recommendations for changing procedures, we allow the course to continue, irrespective of whether the complainants are likely to wage a media campaign as a consequence.

I make no apology for programmes which include a large proportion of coursework and internal assessment. Such courses frequently make greater demands on students than those solely dependent on examinations -- because they have to pass every element and cannot shrink from any aspect of the port-folio of work.

There has not been a scrap of evidence to support Article 26 and its anonymous spokesman, "Charles Bell", in suggesting that internally assessed courses are subject to widespread corruption. Indeed, the Further Education Funding Council has found "no evidence of candidates being deliberately certificated as having competences they did not possess".

Of course, with the introduction of output funding we have to be increasingly vigilant, and BTEC has over the past year concentrated in its quality enhancements in the following areas: our external verifiers now double-mark on a sampling basis work from each student, each lecturer and each assignment on each BTEC programme; we have developed a series of centrally set GNVQ assignments to act as yardsticks to guide lecturers; external verifiers have themselves been subjected to a comprehensive re-selection process, including exercises in double-marking and assessment, with the result that 400 were replaced, having either not met our standards or chosen not to complete the process.

There are still areas for discussion and improvement. For example, there will occasionally be disagreements between lecturers on the appropriate grades for a particular student in a particular subject. I would like to see more discussion on ways in which we might introduce refinements to our processes for resolving such disputes.

These are the issues which I would like to see at the centre of the debate, not the unsubstantiated claims of a handful of individuals.

The students whom our team met last Friday were angry that the qualifications on which they hope to base their careers could be subjected to damaging and unfounded smears. Such allegations also represent an insult to thousands of lecturers who dedicate themselves to giving their students the best possible opportunities. For their sakes, let us concentrate on the real issues, not the bogus ones.

Christina Townsend is chief executive, Business and Technology Education Council.

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