Anti-academic sniping surrounds NVQ support

May 26, 1995

Discussion about higher level NVQs needs to emerge from the mire of simplistic publicity which accompanies their promotion and the parallel dismissal of any objection to them. There is a serious gap between the rhetoric about what NVQs at higher levels can encompass in professional development and some of the realities of their implementation.

One constant in recent debate, though, is the sneering tone used to denigrate those who "don't understand" NVQs subtleties, or those who don't believe they are a solid foundation for the complexities of continuing professional development. A good deal of anti-academic sniping has surrounded support for NVQs since their inception.

For functional analysts and members of lead bodies who draw up the occupational standards of competence, NVQs' labyrinthine processes of mapping, defining, refining and desegregating professional activities, seem to suggest that anything and everything about what professionals should do and the qualities they should have, is now possible - on paper. Ever-burgeoning definitions of "competence", "transferability", "capability" and "core skills" are emanating from lead bodies, and functional analysts working for the Employment Department and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

It seems the NVQs can now encompass - and assess - the most holistic and intangible of professional activities, including ethics, creativity and reflective practice. From their origins as a work-based assessment regime, they are fast becoming enormous bureaucratic and prescriptive blueprints for learning.

Meanwhile, there is a growing body of very informed unease about NVQs' limitations for professional development. Some is characterised by philosophical as well as educational concerns about how their bureaucratic prescriptiveness affects the processes of learning and curriculum development, and perceptions about what knowledge and understanding are for. Some of it is based on professionals' experience of gaining NVQs.

It is by no means clear from this experience that gearing professional qualifications to the acquisition of NVQ units of competence will result in the type of learning experiences and worthwhile assessment processes which will motivate people to undertake updating and continuing development. There is a need for much more work which addresses the creation of a flexible and comprehensive framework for learning and accreditation. NVQs clearly form part of this but they are just not up to the job of being the answer to professional development: there are some functions and aspects of learning the NVQs simply cannot capture.

NVQ supporters have to listen seriously to concerns about NVQs, just as sceptics have to consider the advantages of the NVQ approach. Simply telling critics and their ilk to create "better" NVQs or to rely on the NCVQ's marketing campaign (THES, May 12) does not do justice to the notion of a higher education and professional debate about the possible impact of NVQs on professional learning and development. This debate is long overdue.

KATHRYN ECCLESTONE

School of Education

University of Sunderland

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