Competence-based training is not new to the Scottish vocational and education and training scene. Assessments based on the ability to demonstrate and do, and assessment and education and training programmes based on groups of units and modules, have been an integral part of Scottish education and training since 1984 when the Action Plan initiative was introduced. Although initially introduced for 16 to 18-year-olds, the concepts soon extended beyond this target group as people realised the potential of this flexible and adaptable system.
Experiences gained through Action Plan and advanced level course modularisation helped smooth the path for the launch of Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) by the Scottish Vocational and Educational Committee (SCOTVEC) and partner industry lead bodies in 1989, and were influential in setting up arrangements for the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and NVQs in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Since 1989, uptake and implementation of SVQs has grown steadily. Recent research suggests that between 40 and 50 per cent of Scottish employers have embraced the concept. The qualifications are gaining credibility and more people are aware of them.
Uptake is also increasing. This is hardly surprising considering the government budgets deployed and the marketing emphasis placed on the new qualifications. Local enterprise companies (LECs), central to the success of SVQ implementation through their responsibility to develop the training and assessment infrastructure, are encouraging local commitment with the incentive of financial support for companies.
Scottish employers have been bombarded with invitations to SVQ launches, provider promotional events and focus groups by SCOTVEC, colleges, training providers, industry training organisations (ITOs) and national bodies with an interest in achieving the education and training targets for Scotland.
However, it is not just aggressive promotion which has fuelled growth. Employers' views, gathered in research, reveal perceptions of the tangible benefits of SVQs. Significantly, knowledge and understanding of the purpose and value of SVQs as a feature of human resource development in business and industry is becoming widely accepted. SVQs provide a new management tool for recruiting, appraising and deploying staff. The standards are seen as a guide to best practice in the industry and a guide for setting company targets for managers and employees, especially when linked with the Investors in People standard and quality management systems. The company and its customers recieve strong reassurance while employees are better motivated and able to work more flexibly.
Scottish employers are encouraged by the industry-led nature of SVQs. Introducing and running an SVQ programme helps set standards of performance and encourages consistency across the organisation. Although some feel they need support in interpreting the standards, and some feel the standards for their sector require further development, most welcome the clear descriptions of occupational requirements in their sector.
New qualifications have been developed which plug gaps in the system. In particular the service industries, which make an important contribution to the gross national product, now have a coherent set of awards tailored by industry.
The primary responsibility for vocational education and training has, for many years, been perceived to have rested with our schools, universities, colleges and training providers. The need to enhance the Scottish skills base and the related provision of competence-based awards is changing this perception.
The concept is that SVQs are owned by and are the responsibility of employers, who reap the benefits of a better qualified workforce, which in turn enhances their competitive position in the world markets.
Meanwhile there is a key role for the education sector. The consensus of opinion in Scotland is that partnership between the employment and education sectors represents a constructive way forward.
SCOTVEC's imminent SVQ implementation strategy for 1995-98 has close cooperation as its key objective. Margery Burdon, director of product development and Marketing at SCOTVEC, says: "We have developed our new SVQ marketing strategy to ensure that SVQs play a full role in the achievement of national training and education targets for Scotland. By continuing to work closely with all our partners we can successfully implement and promote SVQs to the benefit of employers and employees alike."
Initial implementation of SVQs is a complex task for employers who want effective assessment and support services. There is considerable scope for partnerships between them and education.
The message to colleges and universities is clear: provide a flexible, accessible and reliable range of services which meet employers' needs for top-up training, assessment services, assessor verifier training and support in areas such as administration and induction of candidates.
This can build on the work of further education colleges and the Scottish universities, which, through continuing professional training, credit accumulation and transfer, multimedia-based learning and the Enterprise in Education programme have gained considerable experience in supporting the skills' training needs of employers.
There is a huge untapped potential for colleges and universities in relation to SVQs. The small-to- medium-sized enterprises which make up over 90 per cent of the Scottish economy have specific support needs in relation to SVQs. They need assessment and training services tailored to meet the needs of small groups of individuals. Such support is most effective when it is carefully targeted at specific business needs and industry-sector developments.
A clear role for colleges and universities is in supporting the development of a more comprehensive provision of SVQs at levels four and five. Currently, in the catalogue of 700 SVQs, there are few high-level qualifications. Now that the lower-level provision is becoming embedded there is a need to provide more opportunities for progression to high-level awards. The catalogue could also be enhanced by the rapid development of SVQs across the industry sectors not already covered; this in turn will require supportive training and assessment provision.
Provision at local level, at the moment, is unbalanced. In one relatively small geographic area over 20 providers are competing to offer SVQs in business administration. It is not difficult to find providers of SVQ services in hairdressing and catering; but provision for SVQs in manufacturing and electronics is less abundant locally.
Support for SVQ implementation by further and higher education institutions has been slowly building up. Colleges have been more pro-active in the development of the qualifications since the Scottish Office Education Department directive last November to cease the further development of advanced provision in Scottish colleges, and the number of SVQs accredited by the college sector has more than doubled in the last year.
However, many employers hold the view that SVQs can and should only be assessed in the workplace. Some colleges and universities are offering complete SVQs, or SVQs as part of larger packages, and there is currently debate about the role and validity of simulated work-based environments in some college and university courses.
Employers are increasingly recognising the link between quality training and vocational education through the SVQ framework and business survival and growth. The implementation costs to employers are obvious but the business case is less so, at least to those employers who have not been involved in training in the past.
Clear communication of real business benefits by all key players is essential if mixed messages are not to be received. Aggressive competition will impede progress rather than enhance it. Collaboration between employers, local education committees and all training providers offers considerable opportunities for the continuing successful implementation of SVQs in Scotland.
Ann Macleod is senior development officer for the Scottish Further Education Unit.