The skills backlash

November 17, 1995

The millionth NVQ was awarded on Wednesday. It was supposed to be a milestone marking the week when, as the PR people put it, NVQs "came of age". But this week will be remembered very differently - as the week when Gillian Shephard tacitly acknowledged the shaky, if not quite shambolic, state of vocational training by commissioning an audit into the framework of job-related qualifications (page 2).

It is hard to credit that the Government has commissioned yet another audit for the training system. Already, Gordon Beaumont is preparing a review of the top 100 NVQs which is due out next month. Sir Ron Dearing is preparing a review of the 16-19 education and training framework which is due out next year. Surely, that must be enough?

But no. The politicians may agree that education and training are a number one priority, that as Tony Blair says Britain needs to become "the knowledge capital of Europe if it is to become the enterprise capital of Europe". But the debates at the CBI conference in Birmingham made it clear that business leaders and even some academics are questioning not just the nuts and bolts of the training system but its rationale as well.

It comes as a shock to find there are still businessmen like Garry Hawkes of hotel giant Gardner Merchant who choose to characterise higher education as essentially non-vocational and part of "the middle-class grand tour", and who lament the decline of good old-fashioned hand-dirtying diplomas in favour of high-minded degrees. In the age of the information superhighway such views betray a woeful lack of understanding of the demands of an information society. Fortunately it goes against the official line of British business as articulated by the CBI that the Government's policy of rationing higher education places is mistaken.

It is shocking too that academics like Liverpool University's Patrick Minford and Len Shackleton, the Westminister University-based author of the Employment Policy Institute's training study, question the central tenet of the CBI-backed "skills revolution" - that upskilling will solve unemployment and make for a world-class workforce.

One reason for this schism is the contrasting experiences of the handful of large companies represented by the CBI and the thousands of small and medium-sized companies. Dominic Cadbury, head of one of the world's leading consumer conglomerates, says NVQs have "changed the culture" of his company. Yet for most SMEs - which, it must be remembered, will provide most future jobs - NVQs remain an untried experiment, seen as too expensive and bureaucratic.

And, after this week, they are likely to seem still more irrelevant. "Why should we spend valuable time and money supporting a vocational training system," SMEs will ask, "that even top company directors and leading research academics are rubbishing?" And who will blame them? The problem is that while the arguments rage, thousands of young people are having to plough on with courses which are not as good as they could be and not as useful as they should be. The resulting damage to their confidence and prospects will be serious and the blame will lie with those who are failing to press on with reforming post-16 qualifications as a whole.

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