Marry in haste I

October 13, 1995

Ian Johnston on the pros and cons of the NCVQ-SCAA merger. At the time of the autumn public expenditure survey it was hardly surprising that the recently leaked draft Department for Education and Employment memorandum for the Chequers strategy cabinet touched on resources for education and unemployment. But the comment that "the possibilities (sic) of merging the NCVQ and the SCAA must be taken seriously" is curious in a number of ways.

First one must wonder how many of the Cabinet, or indeed how many voters, know even what the initials stand for, (answer below!), still less what these august bodies do. So its inclusion for a strategy cabinet seems ambitious.

But there is a deep strategic rationale. If UK plc is to be competitive it needs a skilled and qualified labour force. There might be more incentive for people to gain particularly vocational qualifications if these were labelled and presented simply, and if they had parity of esteem with academic qualifications. NVQs and GNVQs and their various levels and Part Ones are still a closed book to most pupils and parents who are more at home with GCSE, A levels and degrees.

Better understanding will come from wider use, improved marketing, perhaps from better labelling, but also from employers using GNVQ and NVQs in recruitment advertisements and from employers raising the wages of employees who get NVQs.

None of these would flow from a merger of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. The most obvious potential gains from merger would be in the 16-19 qualifications arena where the two chairmen, Sir Ron Dearing and Mike Heron, already work closely together. If a genuinely coherent modularised qualifications framework is sought with full credit transfer between A level, GNVQ and NVQ, as implied by a broader baccalaureate model, there will indeed be some tricky technical issues of "equivalence" and assessment to resolve.

For employers the risk is that the radical competence-based nature of NVQs would be prejudiced. NVQs are supposed to represent the skills needed to perform modern jobs. At the heart of NVQs is, then, the idea that these competencies must be demonstrated in practice in the workplace. While knowledge and understanding can be tested in the classroom by exams or essay based projects, practical competence cannot. Just as in a driving test where all the skills have to be shown (starting up hill, cornering, reversing, emergency stops, etc) all skills have to be demonstrated to gain an NVQ pass. The 50 or 40 per cent pass mark for an academic exam is unacceptable. Also employers fear that many adult employees would be turned-off if they had to sit written exams.

For educationists NVQs seem undemanding and even GNVQs arguably do not give enough conceptual and analytical basis for progression to further study. Moreover, when the supervisor does most of the assessment the relative lack of external validation could be worrying for consistency in vocational qualifications assessment standards.

The Government has recognised this by asking the NCVQ to review content (knowledge and understanding), and assessment procedures across NVQs and to improve GNVQs.

The knee-jerk reaction of bureaucrats if in doubt reorganise would distract from this work. But it would bring under one roof the responsibility for resolving some of the issues and perhaps make compromises easier. One obvious compromise is not to expect young people passing a school or college course to demonstrate practical skills. In other words to separate out the knowledge and understanding required for NVQ into a form of NVQ part one, leaving work-based apprentices and adult employees the work place assessment route to full NVQs.

As the leaked "possibilities" perhaps hinted, there are other options too, beyond the status quo and full merger. The scope from age five to 65 of a fully merged body is huge so perhaps one option is for SCAA to focus on five to 16 and for NCVQ to be converted into a new body for 16 plus.

If progress is to be made with GNVQ 4/5 both higher education and the professions would want greater representation on that body. Alternatively some special 16 - 19 body could be created. That would give scope for remedying the anomaly that further education is squeezed out between schools and NVQs.

The Budget in November will announce the resource decision but simplifying qualifications and establishing their availability is a much longer haul.

Ian Johnston is deputy principal of Sheffield Hallam University and former director general of the Training Enterprise Education Directorate.

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