Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Vocational Qualifications in Britain and Europe: Theory and Practice

Academic journal article National Institute Economic Review

Vocational Qualifications in Britain and Europe: Theory and Practice

Article excerpt


This Note considers three questions bearing on the reform of vocational qualifications in Britain, against the background of changes being introduced by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. First, in what important respects did Britain need a reformed and centrally-standardised system of vocational qualifications? Secondly, what are the proper criteria for choosing between alternative methods of awarding qualifications? Much that is at issue hinges on the relative importance of externally-marked written tests as compared with practical tasks assessed by an instructor; the discussion and conclusions reached here in relation to vocational testing apply in large measure also to current debates in other contexts, such as the proper role of teacher-assessed coursework in school examinations at 16+ (GCSE) and the official teacher-assessment of pupils at age 7 (SATs) currently being administered in British schools for the first time. Our third question is: in what significant ways do Continental systems of awarding qualifications differ from those now proposed for Britain? (2)

Need for a standardised system

It is now accepted on all sides that Britain needs more of its workforce to be vocationally trained to intermediate levels; that is to say, to craft or technician standards as represented, for example, by City and Guilds examinations (at part 2) or BTEC National Certificates and Diplomas. In engineering, building and related trades there has for long been a system for the award of qualifications that has worked more or less satisfactorily; indeed, the City and Guilds system established at the end of the last century was in many ways an internationally admired pioneer, and its syllabuses and examinations were followed, and are still followed, in many parts of the world. In other occupations, such as office work or retailing, a variety of qualifying bodies grew up in Britain - such as the Royal Society of Arts, the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Pitman's, the Institute of Drapers - which developed (what has been called) a |jungle' of qualifications at a variety of unco-ordinated levels. In many other occupations in Britain there was no system of qualifications at all.

On the other hand, in Germany - but also, for example, in France, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands - vocational qualifications and associated part-time or full-time courses were developed which covered virtually the whole range of occupations in the economy. The qualifications awarded usually at ages 18-20 at the end of these vocational courses - the Berufsschulabschluss in Germany and the Certificat d'aptitude professionnelle in France - are as widely understood as, say, O-level passes were recently in Britain (the narrower and clearer range of attainments encompassed by an O-level pass make it a more appropriate standard of comparison than the new GSCE, with the very wide range of attainments spanned by its awards).

What was essentially wrong in Britain with engineering and building qualifications was that too few people took them - but I believe there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the qualification-procedure itself. For the rest of the economy there was a serious need (a) to make the system coherent, so that equivalent levels could more easily be recognised; and (b) to expand the occupational coverage. These two objectives - greater recognisability and expansion of coverage - are of course to some extent linked. Greater recognisability should lead to greater marketability, reduced transaction costs in the labour market, and to greater demand for qualifications and skills both by employers and by trainees. The benefits to be expected are similar to those ensuing from |hallmarking'. There are also economies of scale in organising training programmes, and in specifying standards and certification-procedures for a limited number of defined training-occupations at defined levels. …

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