Grasp the vocational nettle

April 14, 1995

Universities have a key role to play in teacher training despite moves to shift the initial responsibility on to schools, argues John Randall.

Proposals to move the focus of initial teacher training from the universities to the schools may appear to pose a threat to university departments of education. A rhetoric that derides university education departments as hotbeds of 1960s-style permissive liberalism diverts attention from the underlying reality of a model that is working well in other areas of vocational and professional education and which could provide new and challenging opportunities for university departments of education.

The outcome that any system of professional training is designed to produce is a competent practitioner. That is as true of the training of teachers as it is of the training of doctors, lawyers or engineers.

That competence will rest upon knowledge, understanding and skill. Those elements need to be expressed not only in relation to the subject matter taught but also to the theory, methodology and technique of successful teaching.

Competent performance, measured against occupational standards and assessed in the workplace, is what National Vocational Qualifications are all about. There is an opportunity for university departments of education to seize the initiative in advocating a new approach to teacher training that would bring it within the NVQ framework and, at the same time, redefine the role of universities in relation to teacher training in a new and challenging way.

A starting point must be the organisational framework for the delivery of NVQs. This has a number of key elements.

First there is a lead body, representative of interests within the occupational sector but predominantly of employer interests. It will define occupational standards applicable to its sector through a process of functional analysis of jobs.

Once the standards are developed they enter the public domain and awarding bodies can offer qualifications based upon them. Awarding bodies apply to National Council for Vocational Qualifications for approval of their awards. Those awards then become NVQs at one or more of the five levels of the framework.

Awarding bodies deliver assessment through a network of assessment centres. Many of these will be workplaces with their own internal assessors and verifiers whose work is checked by external verifiers accountable to the awarding body.

How might this structure apply to teacher training? The lead body role could be taken by the Teacher Training Agency acting alone or leading a consortium of employers.

Once the lead body has defined the standards the initiative passes to awarding bodies. Here is the first opportunity for the universities.

The Guide to NVQs has, until now, placed barriers in the way of universities becoming awarding bodies. Hitherto only organisations with a national coverage of local centres could aspire to awarding body status. NCVQ has altered this criterion, so it now depends on an ability to offer assessment opportunities to candidates from throughout England and Wales. An awarding body thus can be an organisation in a single geographical location but recruiting nationally. The new criterion was framed to cater for professional and higher level NVQs and with the specific intention of enabling universities to become NVQ-awarding bodies in their own right.

If universities become awarding bodies for NVQs in teaching their networks of local centres would be the schools in which learning and assessment will take place. Front-line assessment would be carried out by practising teachers in the schools. Internal verification of the standards of assessment would be the responsibility of more senior teachers, appropriately trained. In larger schools these might be heads of department, in smaller schools perhaps the head teacher. External verification would be the responsibility of the university in its role as awarding body.

The role of the university would not stop with the quality assurance function of the awarding body. At the higher levels of the NVQ framework there is an increased emphasis on the role of the knowledge and understanding that underpins competence, possession of which cannot always be reliably inferred solely from observing performance at work.

Separate assessment of it may well be needed and there will be a continuing need for learning programmes to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

The university is a natural provider of the teaching programmes to support and complement work-based learning.

Adopting the NVQ approach is far more than just a survival technique to enable university education departments to have a continuing role in the education and training of teachers. The rapid growth of General NVQs in schools means that the assessment techniques of GNVQs are becoming a part of the currency of secondary education. Awareness of, and competence in, those techniques will be developed naturally through a teacher qualification system that is itself within the NVQ framework.

What would an NVQ in teaching look like? In one way, range statements could differentiate between primary and secondary teaching, in another they could specify competence in particular subjects.

Threshold competence of the newly qualified teacher could be represented by an award at level 4. Level 5 could accredit the post-experience qualification of the more experienced teacher and would include development and management units. The development units would reflect the responsibility of the more senior teacher to act as an assessor or verifier in respect of trainee teachers working within the school. The management units would reflect the managerial, personnel and budgetary competences that would be required of a head of department in a medium-to-large secondary school or of a head teacher in a small primary school.

A level 3 qualification could cater for teaching assistants. The idea of an underpaid and underqualified "mums' army" is one of the rhetorical flourishes that has undermined serious debate about the future direction of teacher training. Most professions have properly qualified technician-level support; teachers too could benefit from support from assistants qualified to operate to a certain level or across a limited range.

The NVQ framework has a great deal to offer the teaching profession. It presents university departments of education with an opportunity and a challenge to define a model of their own future that retains for them a credible, viable and educationally rigorous role in teacher training.

John Randall is director of the professional standards and development directorate of the Law Society.

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