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Competent vs. qualified

Screen shot 2013-03-25 at 10.50.12It is said that “things are the way they are because they got that way”. So please, step back with me, into the mists of time …. time … time …

Once upon a time, not so many years ago … the UK was swamped by a confusion of work-related qualifications based on classroom tests, attendance on courses and time-serving apprenticeships.

Among the main problems with the system were that:

  1. Each of the assessment regimes has serious weaknesses. Even if all three (tests, attendance and time-serving) had been achieved, there was still no guarantee that the candidate was able to do the job, in real workplaces, to an agreed standard
  2. The bodies that awarded such qualifications made their money from passes, so much of their energy went on balancing the credibility of the qualification with ease of achievement.
  3. The bewildering selection of certificates, awards and diplomas across different qualifications gave no indication of how they related to each other and at what level
  4. Employers were confused by the qualifications and so resorted to filtering out applicants for jobs by setting thresholds of the more commonly understood academic qualifications such as GCSEs, A-levels and degrees (which were usually achieved at age 16, 18 and 21 respectively)

Government funding of work-related training was the trigger for a restructuring of those old input-based qualifications, which assessed the training undertaken rather than the candidate’s ability, into a national framework.

Under the auspices of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (and its vocational precursor the National Council for Vocation Qualifications) each industry set its own National Occupational Standards (NOS) which described the outcomes of competent performance in specific functions. The training input was irrelevant, competence is judged on what people can do rather than which courses they had sat through.

NOS were expressed in “units” – chunks of work function commonly undertaken within the industry. The principle being that each unit could be achieved separately to build a portfolio of units which cover current, and perhaps future, job roles.

Of course, some functions, such as admin, were common across most industries, so existing units from other sectors could be incorporated into the NOS.

So far, so good. The NOS are really useful to employers as benchmarks of competence against which they can plan training, recruitment and business strategy. Sectors still set and review their NOS through a rigorous process of employer input and consultation.

It would have been possible to stop at that point. To provide the framework of competences against which companies too, can plan their own development and to enable people to build a portfolio of relevant unit certificates, the credibility of which are based on performance in real work situations.

But no. Our penchant for “big qualifications” ruled the day and the units were bundled up into National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). These were often a prescribed cluster of units to be achieved but often comprised a few core units with a requirement to supplement these with a set number of “optional” units taken from a wider selection.

  • First point of weakness: Candidates for employment may each have the same NVQ from the industry but the employer has no way, initially, of knowing for which combination of units the candidate’s qualification is awarded and thus in which aspects of the job role they have demonstrated competence.
  • Second point of weakness: Much UK vocational training is publicly funded. Funding is based on a combination of input and achievements. The most convenient measure of outcome is achievement of the agreed NVQ. Training is therefore designed to get learners to produce the most expedient portfolio of evidence that will achieve the NVQ, as quickly as possible. This usually means a standardised programme of evidence generation with little training as possible. Opportunities for learners to customise their NVQ unit collection to suit their skills and career plans are thus severely limited.

Now, we have the Qualifications Curriculum Framework which is described by the QCA:

“At present, it is hard to understand all the different types of qualification that learners hold – what level they are, how long they take to complete, what content they cover, and how they compare to other qualifications. The new framework will help present qualifications in a way that is easy to understand and measure.”

For me, the worrying item in there is “… how long they take to complete …”.

I have recently been helping a significant UK industry to define and agree an up-to-date set of NOS which meet employers needs for units of qualification which describe the skills, knowledge and understanding which come together in real work situations to demonstrate competence. Extensive consultation and negotiation has produced what is agreed to be a comprehensive and definitive set of standards and which are currently awaiting accreditation.

However, even before that process is complete, I have just spent a few days deriving units for the Qualifications and Credit Framework for the first time. It is too early to know whether the draft units I have produced are acceptable but the process has been one of progressively weakening the standard, becoming more concerned with testing the learning process rather than workplace performance and being advised to “make it easier for candidates”. You’ll understand that I’m concerned about this.

The benefits of the QCF are trumpeted thus:

Every unit and qualification in the framework will have a credit value (one credit represents 10 hours, showing how much time it takes to complete).

For who to complete? A 16 year-old apprentice or someone with experience who may be moving into the sector and bringing lots of existing skill, knowledge and understanding with them?

… looking at the title of a qualification you will be able to see how difficult it is … GCSEs (grade A*- C) are level 2, GCE A levels are level 3 and a PhD is a level 8

Note that the comparison is with academic, knowledge-only qualifications.

The principles of the QCF are very similar to NVQs:

  • Unit-based allowing smaller achievements to be recognised and accumulated to gain full qualifications.
  • Different combinations of units can make up the same qualification.
  • Once achieved, units can be used towards qualifications in employment, education or training.

So far, so good, but it doesn’t appear to add much to how the existing NVQ system was conceived. However, by creating knowledge-only units it also allows for combining units from education and employment. I would suggest that this is not sufficient a benefit to warrant the wholesale upheaval of the system – at significant cost.

The credibility of NVQs with employers took years to establish. With QCF units often being derived, filtered and reformulated from the NOS, employers are not so directly involved. Credibility may be even more of an issue.

From what I have seen the QCF units don’t paint a picture of competence, rather they seem to tell a story of learning about some of the NOS content.

Perhaps I’m missing something. I’m very willing to have my scepticism overturned. So if you would like to put me straight, please, leave a comment.

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