NEARLY 40 per cent of assessors of national vocational qualifications admit to passing sub-standard students, according to a survey out this week.
The finding is a big blow to the Government's strategy for improving skills in the workforce.
The study, by Sussex University researchers, also found that 48 per cent of nearly 100 external verifiers - "those with the greatest responsibility for standards" - also passed poor students.
External verifiers are appointed by awarding bodies such as the construction industry training board, the Royal Society of Arts and City and Guilds. They award NVQs in their own right and also monitor the work of assessors.
Backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, the survey covered 1,200 assessors based at colleges, training agencies and companies in England and concentrated on the NVQ Level 2 qualification which accounts for 60 per cent of NVQs awarded.
It focused on NVQs in construction, engineering and business administration, which together account for half the number awarded. Between 2.5 and 3 million people are participating in the NVQ programme.
Michael Eraut, leader of the research team, says the survey has uncovered a "significant conflict" between the Government's qualification policy for NVQ and its training policy.
"NVQs are designed for workplace assessment but cannot be delivered that way to a large number of candidates. There is no clear relationship between the funding provided and the amount of training needed even for average trainees to achieve competence."
The detailed NVQ specifications, backed by a bureaucratic approach to verification, has led to an assessment system that is "dominated by paperwork".
The number of trainees exceeds the number of employment-based traineeships and work placements which can provide a reasonable range of training. Many trainees receive most of their training and assessment off-the-job. "This inevitably distorts an assessment system designed for on-the-job training," said Professor Eraut.
The report suggests the creation of NVQ units designed specifically to meet the differing needs of off-the-job and on-the-job training.
It also says that the funding framework for youth and adult training schemes should more accurately reflect the greater training time required for some NVQs and less well-prepared students: "Carpentry and joinery, for example is more demanding than painting and decorating; engineering than business administration."
The National Council for Vocational Qualifications, the body responsible creating the NVQ framework, welcomed Professor Eraut's report and said it is "anxious to investigate further" the findings that 38 per cent of assessors are passing students who should not be passed.
The council added that it supports many of the findings of the Beaumont Review of the top 100 NVQs and their Scottish equivalent, SVQs and "therefore endorses major changes to NVQs which are already being formulated."
The Assessment of NVQs isavailable from University ofSussex Institute of Education. Price Pounds 6.95
What trainers told the study
No assessor or trainer would go public with their criticisms of NVQs but the report is littered with anonymous admissions: "If someone has achieved the practical competencies and is a little short on knowledge we let them through." (assessor)
"Fifty per cent of our time is taken up by assessment, most of the remainder goes in training. There is no time to give a broad education or to correct educational difficulties. The construction industry training board withdrew some students because we were giving them numeracy and literacy assistance. They told us we must just concentrate on competencies." (college head of construction) "The old system was better. The standards were better. You knew that if someone had done the core and specific parts, no matter where, it would be the same standard." (college lecturer) "I view paintwork at a metre distance and ask each student 'are you happy with it?' Some say no, so I thank them and acknowledge I have seen the faults, and I will often pass them." (assessor) "We can't be too rigid or they would vote with their feet - they come from differing experiences and attitudes." (assessor).