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Special Section : Vocational Training.

In this section several of the contributions are anonymous. faxfn can contact them if necessary.

15feb99: Mike Matheson: A pity about NVQs.

As a retired trade union official (NUPE) I support the comments of nurses about the deficiencies of Project 2000 training. However it is not only nursing which has gone from on the job training to academic. Craft apprenticeships are now extremely rare and training is now much more college based with the same drawbacks. The non academic pupil who does not amass a clutch of GNVQ certificates gets shut out.

My main comments are about National Vocational Qualifications - NVQs. As originally proposed they were to be an assessment of practical skills to enable workers who previously had no recognised qualification standards to receive recognition for their skills, however acquired, in a certificated form which could be taken from job to job. For example office cleaners kitchen assistants and care assistants were to be able for the first time to get an on the job qualification. However the scheme quickly went wrong in two ways:

1. NVQs were allowed to replace existing qualifications. Most City & Guilds qualifications were discontinued despite their widespread acceptance by employers. This actually reduced the access to recognised qualifications for skilled workers in, for example, catering, gardening and construction.

2. Because of the problem of maintaining a uniform standard by on the job assessors NVQs began to require written "evidence" to support the skills claimed. This has now resulted in massive bundles of paperwork, a mixture of handout sheets and exercises completed by the worker, being required even at NVQ Levels 1 and 2. This is making the qualifications inaccessible to precisely those for whom they were originally intended.

It's a pity, NVQs were a good idea until the academics got hold of them.

28feb99: Steve Relf: Traditional crafts gone.

I am a builder in York.

There is an enormous lack of skills in the building industry. Traditionally trained craftsmen are in the minority. There are lots of 'cowboys ' who will charge the earth for shoddy workmanship. Unfortunately it is very difficult for the homeowner to tell the difference.

There is a shortage of traditionally trained craftsmen because the apprenticeship system has disappeared. This is unfortunate because the best way for a young person to learn the proper skills and trade is to start as an apprentice. In my experience NVQS are not good enough because they do not fit the requirement. How can you expect to learn from someone at a college who is not qualified enough to be a tradesman.

It is impossible to get young people to come into the building trade. This is because they want instant results. They want craftsmen's pay for labourers work. In York 10 per hour is the average for a craftsman. Young learners would only be worth 3.50 - 4.00 per hour. Given that the work is physically hard, no youngsters want to know.

What will happen for the consumer in the future if young people are not getting properly trained in their craft? It is difficult to tell good tradesmen from 'cowboys'. Membership of the trade guilds is not a guarantee. We need old fashioned apprenticeships NOW.

(08sep02: Footnote. Three years on, there is no discernable change.)

24jan99: Andy Eadie: No major employers take on apprentices

I am the proprietor of a small business with ten employees. I have worked in the building industry for seventeen years and it has given me a good living. But nobody seems to want to learn a trade anymore. (...Full text: "Too posh to do a proper job")

At the age of 33, I am considered to be young in the building trade because, since the mid 80's no major employers have taken on apprentices. The days of employers recruiting from schools have gone. It is now only a question of time before there is a major shortage in the construction industry.

I have tried to employ people but it is virtually impossible to find good tradesmen. This will only get worse as young people don't want to work in the building trade. It will probably only dawn on the general public when they start being charged exorbitant prices for the simplest of jobs. Then they will realise that even the cowboys can name their own price. Finding an honest tradesman will be a lifelong search.

04apr99: Travel Agent: NVQs - A backward step.

I have worked as a travel agent for sixteen years. I started on the job, behind the counter, as a trainee with no experience - but I was very closely supervised. For the first two months I worked alongside the manager of my branch or the assistant manager.

After this initial period I would do the easier tasks but still under supervision. In my case, after about six months I could do tasks such as bookings and air tickets on my own, although some trainees took a bit longer to get to this point.

At that time it was possible to go to college and study full-time for a COTAC course but I did the first part of this course as a self-study pack through the company. The course was not strictly necessary for the COTAC qualification, two years experience, validated by senior travel staff was sufficient. However, the course was quite useful but I did not feel the necessity of progressing to level 2.

Over the past few years the industry has switched to NVQs. When done in a shop context this consists of a self-study pack something like COTAC. An NVQ assessor visits a few times a year.

One of the great problems with NVQs is the quality of the self-study packs. They are difficult to understand because of the language used. Often the assessor cannot explain the questions to the student. When I did a COTAC course the study packs were written in good English. Sad to say, the NVQ course work is written poorly. It is not straightforward English.

All the NQV trainees at my travel agent go to college on day release. Ask them what they have learnt and they will tell you - nothing.

23may99: College Lecturer: It really isn't that simple.

First let me comment on some of the points made by your correspondents.

Steve Relf
  • "There is an enormous lack of skills in the construction industry." If by this he means there are not enough skilled personnel in the industry, I agree.


  • "There are lots of 'cowboys' who will charge the earth for shoddy workmanship." Essentially true but misleading. The cowboys prosper for several reasons; there are not enough skilled people to go round due to low training levels over the last decade, they often do not pay tax or VAT (the imposition of VAT on building work was a 'cowboys charter') and because people will choose to use VAT-free builders in preference to 'proper' builders.

    Incidentally, have you noticed how on those awful TV programmes that portray all builders as cowboys, those getting ripped-off are always members of the comfortable middle-class? They are always the most vulnerable because they resent having to pay 'proper' builders the going rate for the job as it implies that the builders might be earning as much as them which couldn't possibly be right could it? One thing I do know is that you cannot blame education and training for the cowboys as by definition these are the non-trained workforce.


  • "How can you expect to learn from someone at a college who is not qualified enough to be a tradesman?" Well, pardon me, but where is the evidence for this outrageous statement? Every construction crafts lecturer in the country without exception will have City and Guilds qualifications in the craft they teach at Craft and Advanced Craft level, a minimum of at least five years (and generally very many more) post-qualification in the industry, a Certificate of Education, competence-based assessor qualifications D32 and D33 (and almost certainly D34) and very often a Full Technological Certificate and an HNC in Building. Many have degrees and professional qualifications, all will have competed with many other applicants for the job they now do and all will undergo continual training and development in the job. Compare this to turning up with your tools at the site gate and asking for and obtaining a 'start'.


  • "It is impossible to get young people to come into the building trade" ... and the rest of the paragraph. Agreed, but this is not the fault of the NVQ system. The job is simply not attractive enough given the present wages, conditions of service and working conditions. I thought the market was supposed to sort this kind of thing out; surely the free-market fanatics could not have been wrong?

Andy Eadie
  • "Too posh to do a proper job." I couldn't agree more.


  • It is only a matter of time before there is a major shortage in the construction industry. We're there now and it's going to get worse. I have tried to employ people but it is virtually impossible to find good tradesmen (his word not mine, I'm trained not to use non-PC words!). True, but it will never improve unless he too starts taking on 16 year-olds and training them!

But this story is really one of educators forced to do the impossible.

But the story isn't simple.

The new NVQ regime.

The one thing that is crucial to an understanding of the changes you are interested is that they have been employer-led in that they were written by employer-led groups (paradoxically, most employers believe that the colleges wrote the new units and that that's why they don't work). The colleges have had no part in devising the NVQ qualifications which were devised by 'volunteer forces' for each industry known as Lead Bodies (now National Training Organisations). In some vocational areas this never happened because nobody came forward to do it and in those areas City and Guild (and other) courses still exist.

Note that I use the word qualification rather than course. NVQs are not training courses, they are development opportunities. They are absolutely neutral in terms of length of time taken to completion, mode of attendance, age, previous experience and so on. The delivery is totally unimportant in the original scheme of things; all that matters is assessment, which must be done only by accredited assessors, in a structured fashion free from bias, available to all and so on. The people who were needed to perform the assessor role in colleges were, in general, highly qualified and experienced trainers but they still had to undertake arduous new competence-based assessment qualifications in order to prove their competence to assess the new qualifications.

The decisions made by such assessors are regulated by accredited Internal and External Verifiers (another two more competence-based qualifications needed there), the former being employed in FE colleges and private training centres and the latter by whoever the Awarding Body for the course may be. There are a great many ABs, as we call them. The paperwork is horrendous because of the great stress placed upon the reliability and validity of the assessment processes and the overwhelming quality assurance regime introduced to prop up the NVQ regime.

In my area, which is construction, the main Awarding Body is known as the Joint Awarding Body which comprises the Construction Industry Training Board and the City and Guilds of London Institute. They are responsible for all construction craft courses except those in the mechanical engineering sector (plumbing being the most common example) for whom the AB is the British Plumbers Employers' Council (BPEC).

The CITB is also the National Training Organisation for the construction industry and the main user of the system they control at all levels. Whether or not their monopoly position is a good thing for the industry and for the country is an interesting debating point. In theory CGLI have the responsibility for assessment and verification but the link with CITB is still interpreted by many as a potential conflict of interest.

Before the NVQs.

NVQs grew out of the previous government's embarrassment at the low level of training in the UK and the perceived impact upon the economy. The objective was to increase the number of trained people in the UK - not necessarily by training new entrants to a vocational area but by searching out those who already possessed vocationally relevant skills and assessing them through the appropriate NVQ to provide certification to underpin their competence. No apparent thought was given to the training of new entrants - the 16-19 year olds who are the lifeblood and the future of the industry.

But what we really needed was more people with skills and not necessarily more people with qualifications. The major problem facing the industry is the predicted 350,000 shortfall in skilled craftspersons due to the long recession and the associated decline in training . Certificating the existing workforce won't change that.

Before NVQs came into existence there was a huge and potentially confusing number of vocational courses available over the whole sector. The CGLI (see above) accredited a lot of these courses, mainly at Craft and Advanced Craft levels. Courses were available to supply the delivery that underpinned the associated examinations, skills tests, practical assessments and so on.

One of the results of the Educational Reform Act was the establishment of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) to control the whole FE sector (the funding for which had previously been under the control of the local authorities).

The FEFC fund the FE sector and they will not fund any course which does not appear on their Schedule 2. All courses that competed with NVQs were removed from this schedule. Colleges could in practice offer the 'old' courses but they would receive no money for doing so. So the colleges stopped offering the 'old' courses and turned to NVQs as being the only fundable way in which they could replicate their previous function.

Colleges do offer something called Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL) which can help a already competent person to claim credit for what they can do without having to go through the process of proving they can do it. But compiling an APL evidence base required can take a lot of time and energy and, in any case, the colleges are pre-occupied with teaching (providing learning to, I should now say) the 16-19 age group; i.e. to school-leavers.

At the beginning of the NVQ era I had hoped that the proposed changes would bring some kind of coherence to the minefield of qualifications mentioned above. I had optimistically hoped that what would happen would be some kind of audit of existing courses with the result that such courses would be hallmarked as being NVQ1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 depending on the level of competence implied.

In fact course makers had to rewrite every single course in the whole spectrum of vocational education in a competence-based format because of the requirement to accredit the existing workforce. This did not come easy to existing educators because they felt they were replacing something that had worked well for a long time and was understood by everybody. There was also a strong feeling that the courses were too focused on the needs of the indivdual employer and narrowly limited to the job at hand: A trainee with wider development prospects might wish to develop further or move on to another job.

The situation demanded the invention of hundreds of new qualifications when all that was needed was a bit of modification to the existing system. One outcome of the changes was the idea of competence; trainees either demonstrated competence in the vocational and occupational standards and were deemed to be competent or else they failed to demonstrate competence and were deemed to be incompetent. All other forms of grading were proscribed and thus the idea of excellence went out of the window. Merit (or Credit) and Distinction grades for qualifications were discontinued. Why strive for excellence when competence is all you can achieve?

The essential problem remains the inherent tension between the NVQ attempting to accredit the prior experience and skills of those in the workplace whilst also seeking to act as a training mechanism for those who are unemployed or who are employed in another vocational sector. It is very difficult for the a single qualification to attempt to perform both functions effectively.

One point made regularly by your correspondents is their preference for the acquisition of vocationally relevant skills by learning on-the-job rather than in college. The high priests of NCVQ (as was) would support this, their assumption being that the workplace was the only valid environment for assessment. I think this is glib. It was never clear to me that all the skills necessary for vocational competence could necessarily be best assessed in the workplace and certainly not in a cost-effective manner. I shall return to this later!

Another major concern arises out of the issue of pinpointing the main customer or stakeholder for a qualification or an award. NVQs are very vocationally specific and assess the trainee's competence to perform certain very specific tasks. If the needs of the employers are seen to be paramount then immediate goals related to the present job role will be seen as important whereas if the employee's needs are seen as paramount then breadth and transferability of skills would be seen as more important. Clearly the NVQ addresses the employers' needs more directly than that of the trainees.

A concluding thought: Managerialism has ousted professionalism.

Everybody looks for somebody to blame for the situation they find themselves in, including me. The general matrix within which this all occurs is a political one and revolves around the four main items on the average voter's wish-list, which are:

  • a better education system
  • a better health care through the NHS with equality of access
  • a better deal for senior citizens
  • lower income taxes, VAT and council taxes
Unfortunately the electorate is not prepared to allow the first three items to compromise the last and so we are stuck. No political party that seriously wants to form a government dares raise taxes and the result is insufficient money in the public purse to satisfy everyone's specific needs.

The emphasis in the public sector has moved from professionalism to managerialism. Once upon a time professionally qualified people in the public sector had a certain amount of autonomy, worked long and hard hours at a high level of probity and were rewarded with security of tenure, society's gratitude and respect, and annual increments. Now nothing exists unless it can be measured and setting targets, devising performance tools by which achievement can be measured and evaluating the results prior to setting new targets and laying new plans is all that matters.

The victory of the managerial class is total and, given that they have total control and a fanatical belief in the rightness of their views we are, once again, stuck. Yet again the Eloy want us Morlocks to put another theory into practice.

23dec02a: Builder, Aged 25: I earn alot. I am skilled. learnt it all on the job

I have been in building for 5 years. I did do A levels (Geography, English and History).

A friend who had a business in the building trade, offered me a job. I took the job because I knew people coming out of university with degrees, who could not get a job.

I learnt on the job by watching other people and getting advice from them. I have not been on any building courses. I do bricklaying mostly, that is where the money is, but I can do lots of other things: I could build a house from start to finish. Most of my jobs go well and most of the work is tightly constrained by health and safety.

In the industry there are no young people coming through. I have not seen one school leaver or college leaver since I started.

I get paid very well. About 1000 per week, 50, 000 per year.

01feb03a: Experienced worker in care: NVQs - forcing good people out of important jobs.

Recent legislation has ruled that 50% of workers on any shift in a registered care home must have an NVQ. This has had the consequence that many good and experienced workers are leaving.

If these workers are replaced at all - and many homes will have to close - they will be replaced by "professionals".

The typical worker that will be forced out will be an older woman who has worked for decades. They are not interested in doing qualifications which involve lots of tedious theoretical knowledge.

I believe the people in government who are setting up the qualifications genuinely believe they will improve the situation but the people responsible, the Care Commissioners, are out of touch. Previously standards were checked by an inspection regime, which worked satisfactorily.

For people coming out of school, NVQs may be a good start into care work. In other areas I have seen NVQs work well (eg. for secretarial work) but they should not be used to force good people out of important jobs.

(also in Dangerous Healthcare >> Residential Care)

25feb03a: Recruitment for care: NVQs - we will loose some of the best workers.

I work in home care. I am aware that many of the staff I work with must have NVQs by 2005 - 60% must have it by then. Many of them are older ladies who just won't do this - it's to academic. By 2005 we will have a real crisis.

I recruit and select people for these jobs and it is a waste of skills and experience to set up this situation where many will leave to avoid this imposed pressure.

I don't think the government will change their "minimum care standards" and we will loose some of the best workers. The relevant document is "National minimum standards for ancillary care" by the Department of Health.

(also in Dangerous Healthcare >> Residential Care) 28may03a: Overheard near City and Guilds: Funding and accountability constrains training.

The only way the money is accounted for is in the number of certificates issued. So if the quality is lower the number of certificates is higher and more public expenditure can be justified.

More generally the government's financial controls impose a complicated framework, which those of us working towards a good system of qualifications must cope with. This constrains our efforts to such an extent that we are more concerned with playing the system than delivering mechanisms for good training and assessment.

(also in Education/Training >> Schools and Colleges Today)

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