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The dismantling of vocational skills for the youth of today - a sad sign of the times
18 May, 2023

Christine Lester reflects on the degree to which vocational education has changed since she was working in a group of business colleges in the 1980s, when we were faced with how to move to competence-based qualifications linked to the famous YT (Youth Training) we were all so familiar with.

At that time, it seemed that almost overnight, classroom-based face-to-face education had to be supported by workplace assessment. We tutors were expected to become qualified assessors in our sector of specialism; the rule was that we could assess at one level below that in which we were qualified. We also carried out six-week workplace visits to ensure the candidate was safe, secure and following the scheme of work. This meant there had to be a good relationship between the College or private training provider, the employer and the student.

The training had to be candidate-led, not time-bound, and the assessment would be Valid, Sufficient, Authentic and Current.

At the same time, the relationship between the College/Training Provider and the Awarding Bodies such as RSA, City & Guilds, NEBSM etc was also quality-assured by internal verifiers, workplace assessors and external verifiers. College/Training providers would only be funded according to the student’s success in completing the NVQ and/or the year end examinations. The UK was seen as the lead in developing these competences.

I was responsible for Business & Finance qualifications as Subject Head for seven colleges around the UK. Everything I wrote would be taught in each of the Colleges to the same standard of consistency.

The internal verifier was responsible for the quality of assessment, the continuing professional development of their assessors and reported to the awarding bodies through the external verifier, who visited annually.

Admittedly, it seemed at the time to be “heavy” on paperwork and responsibility - but it worked! I remember my own unbounded joy when my very first group of students all achieved “merit” or “distinction”.  There were of course discussions around whether the academic or vocational route gave the best “all-round” employee and there were a few derogatory remarks "from academics that vocational qualifications were a “Mickey Mouse” substitute!

45 years on

So, over 45 years on, where are we now? We hear constant complaints from employers they are not getting the skills they need and conversely academia may not be necessarily providing workplace "soft skills".

In my opinion, so much has been, or is being, dismantled since Brexit – I recently saw an academic report on the quality of assessment of vocational skills. I loved it, because it spoke about the process of how we assure the quality of what we are assessing (which is now embedded in the European Qualifications Framework (EQF). And let us not forget that the UK inputted most of that knowledge over the past 40 years. Reading this report by two academics on behalf of the Australian Board of Education – I thought “I agree with every word”. It reflected our Bible as assessors.

But then I looked for the date – 2010 – and realised how much had changed in the intervening time.

  • UK withdrawing from Europe and by implication the EQF framework.
  • The consistency of our qualifications in the UK as part of EQF – where is it?
  • In years to come will our students’ qualifications be consistent with Europe or will we have drifted into our own benchmarking/framework?
  • The UK has disbanded the Awarding Bodies who were responsible for consistency & providing external verifiers.
  • The UK has removed external verifiers – now we have "end-point assessors", who don’t know the candidates, fly in – conduct the assessment and fly out again. Who is responsible for THEIR consistency, not just across UK, but Europe or world-wide (our qualifications are recognised everywhere).
  • The UK has also reduced the input of workplace assessors, this was a qualification in its own right – I could say if employers are concerned about the skills, they should be part of the process.
  • Larger employers have formed academies to great effect, but this is not financially realistic for small, or micro enterprises.
  • Australia is now the example of best practice of workplace skills and NOT the UK.

Erasmus+ KA2

This process was all part of Erasmus+ KA2. Erasmus+ is the EU Programme in the fields of education, training, youth and sport for the period 2021-2027. Education, training, youth and sport are key areas that support citizens in their personal and professional development.

Key Action 2, or KA2 (cooperation among organisations and institutions) supports:

  • Partnerships for Cooperation, including Cooperation Partnerships and Small-scale Partnerships;
  • Partnerships for Excellence, including Centres for Vocational Excellence and Erasmus Mundus Action;
  • Partnerships for Innovation, including Alliances and Forward-looking projects;
  • Capacity Building projects in the fields of higher education, vocational education and training, youth and sport;
  • Not-for-profit European sport events.

As members, we would have enjoyed a separately-funded massive injection for the UK to collaborate with other countries looking to implement quality assurance – this is what I and colleagues thought we were influencing in the past 20 years of working on Erasmus and the previous European programmes. I even used the skills from 40 years ago to write completely new competences to be inserted into the European Qualifications Framework.

It seems so ill-advised to have put so much knowledge in, yet at the same time we cannot help ourselves. We have lost our place at the table, yet where was the discussion?

In parallel, I have been developing a “legacy project” which after a year in development, I would by now have taken to Europe. It would have fitted into the Erasmus Culture & Heritage Programme.

But the UK is fixated on how it deals with the after-effects of the pandemic, Brexit, cost of living, you name it – but not engaging with skills for youth. It seems there is a malaise surrounding everything we need to be doing and how we should develop the visionaries and entrepreneurs who will make it happen.

I am concerned for the opportunities for my grandchildren’s generation.  In addition, as my role as a Learning & Development Adviser, I want to know I can recommend the best possible all-round skills development it is possible to provide.

The barriers we have experienced have been difficult – where are the visionaries of today?

Christine Lester FRSA
Chief Executive Officer · Director Strategy, Business Development, Minster Development Centre Ltd

* The Minster Development Centre was formed in 1994 as a Vocational Education Centre for people and organisations. It became a limited company in 2007 and is committed to helping people to receive recognition for their University of Life skills through Accreditation of Prior Learning, using Standards of Competence, informal or formal learning and e-learning.

London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.

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Andy Pye
published this page in Latest blogs 2023-05-18 11:55:45 +0100