This Note suggests how more direct employer involvement in the development of skills and qualifications might be explored.

Professor Alison Wolf’s Review of Vocational Education (known as the Wolf Report) was published in March 2011. Her first and second conclusions concern vocational training and education in general:

“all young people should receive a high quality core education which equips them to progress, whether immediately or later, to a very wide range of further study, training and employment”.

 “the system should enable and encourage variety, innovation, and flexibility, including different opportunities for specialisation: limited pre-16, much greater thereafter”.

Professor Wolf’s third conclusion – which is of special interest to employers – has received less mention. She is determined that employer involvement in skills and qualifications should be increased:

“Indeed our third major objective should be to recreate and strengthen genuine links between vocational education and the labour market; and especially, in the case of young people, the local labour market. Employers are the only really reliable source of quality assurance in vocational areas, and, in spite of lip service, have been progressively frozen out of the way vocational education operates”

BACKGROUND

The Learning and Skills Council, set up in April 2001 to replace the Further Education Funding Council and 72 Training and Enterprise Councils, became Britain’s biggest ever Quango. In July 2009, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee described its handling of its college building programme as ‘catastrophic mismanagement’. In April 2009 LSC responsibilities were transferred to the Young People’s Learning Agency for 16 to 19 year olds and to the Skills Funding Agency for adult learners. The YPLA will be absorbed into the Department for Education’s Funding Agency.

Though under the Learning and Skills Council the skills and qualifications which employers sought for their employees were often projected as “demand-led” and responsive to employers, in practice this was not always the case.  Especially with top down programmes like Train to Gain, many employers were just told that Level 2 qualifications and skills were available and would benefit their employees.

In its “Learning to Change” Report on skills in 2006, the Engineering Employers’ Federation argued:

“We would, therefore, urge government to take this opportunity to cut out the waste and inefficiency within the learning and skills landscape and speed progress towards a more demand-led system

The Wolf Report in its Executive Summary is more direct :

“We have had over twenty years of micro-management and mounting bureaucratic costs, and it is time this changed”.

Professor Wolf had already showed in 2009 in her “An Adult Approach to Further Education” that Level 2  qualifications are not much use anyway:

“Within the LSC budget, a growing proportion – scheduled to exceed £1 billion in 2008/09 – is directed to the Train to Gain programme, which, it was argued above, is unjustifiable in principle, and failing to produce any useful results”

Arising from this, her Report has key messages which are relevant to employers:  

“Quality and standards depend on establishing networks among users and assessors, and, in the case of vocational awards, ensuring that employers – the ultimate creators and guardians of standards – are actively involved at the level of delivery and judgment. Employer representation on national panels is no substitute for their active involvement with vocational education at the level of delivery.”

Employers, colleges and other providers have operated against a background of prescribed, mapped  and regulated qualifications. The Wolf Report describes the complex route through which qualifications have emerged. They must be directly related to specified National Occupational Standards, which are drawn up by Sectors Skills Councils. They must also comply with requirements of the Qualifications and Credit Framework. Funding for each qualification may need the consent of the Secretary of State.

In practice, this means that where a group of employers approaches a college or other provider for new skills or qualifications, where these are not mapped or funded, this complete verification, accreditation and funding process must be followed. The Government now proposes to change this.

PROPOSED REFORMS

Alison Wolf was clear on the future shape of regulation:  

“Recommendation 22: DfE should encourage OFQUAL  to move as quickly as possible away from regulating individual vocational qualifications and concentrate on regulating awarding bodies”.

The Department of Business Innovation and Skills “New Challenges. New Changes: Next Steps in the Further Education Reform Programme ” Consultation in August 2011 shows that the Government intends to implement this recommendation:

“Streamlining the approval process for vocational qualifications. Finding simpler ways of ensuring vocational qualifications meet the needs of employers, taking into account the lessons learned from UKCES pilots and OFQUAL’s new regulatory conditions published in May” 

This will create a system where OFQUAL (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) will focus on Awarding Organisations. Once an Awarding Organisation has been recognised and verified by OFQUAL, individual qualifications should not be directly regulated.

“New Challenges, New Chances: Next Steps in the Further Education Reform Programme” continues with this theme:

“We will build on the increased freedoms and flexibilities already given and introduce a timetable of further simplification over the next two-to-three years, recognising that we have already made a number of changes which have reduced bureaucracy in the system. This will give colleges and training organisations the space to operate in a market environment and respond more effectively to the needs of their customers

A significant change is that “New Challenges. New Chances” emphasises that Sector Skills Councils will not be the only organisations to determine new qualifications:

“Having established the new Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), we will work with OFQUAL, awarding bodies and businesses (including SSCs), to agree simpler and speedier ways for new qualifications to come on-stream. This embraces recommendations in the Wolf Report that “DfE and BIS should discuss and consult on the appropriate future and role of National Occupational Standards in education and training for young people, and on whether and how both national employer bodies – including but not only SSCs – and local employers should contribute to qualification design”. 

There is clearly much here to be tested. Employers, their federations and other collective bargaining units should be able to approach providers and awarding organisations with more confidence that skills required will be accepted and accredited and that, where available, funding more easily accessed. Future new qualifications may not be regulated, mapped in the Qualification and Credit Framework or initiated through Sector Skills Councils. Further exploration is needed on possible responses from the Skills Funding Agency.

Alison Wolf’s Report is also encouraging on other themes for direct employer engagement which should be explored further:

“Recommendation 15: DfE and BIS should review contracting arrangements for apprenticeships, drawing on best practice internationally, with a view to increasing efficiency, controlling unit costs and driving out any frictional expenditure associated with brokerage or middleman activities that do not add value”.

“Recommendation 16: DfE and BIS should discuss and consult urgently on alternative ways for groups of smaller employers to become direct providers of training and so receive ‘training provider’ payments, possibly through the encouragement of Group Training Associations (GTAs).”

The Government has signalled its acceptance of most of Professor Wolf’s Reforms, which is encouraging for more direct employer involvement:

“This document sets out the Government’s response to Professor Wolf’s recommendations. We accept all of them, and what follows sets out how we will take them forward”

ACADEMIC AND VOCATIONAL QUALIFICATIONS

There is often some confusion about the numbers of GCE, GCSE and ‘other’ qualifications which are delivered. OFQUAL’s latest Annual Market Report makes it clear that though there in 2009/2010 there were  0.87mn GCEs and 5.83mn  GCSEs, there were also 7.1mn ‘other’ qualifications.

This represents substantial delivery of ‘other qualifications’ many of which are vocationally oriented or related and in which many employers have not been previously involved. Largest sectors included 1.13mn for Health, Public Services and Care, 399,000 for Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, 602,100 for Information and Communication Technology and 834,900 for Arts, Media and Publishing.

Of these ‘other’ qualifications, 829,800 were in Basic Skills, 979,000 were in National Vocational Qualifications and 2.6mn in Vocationally-Related Qualifications.

Though there were 450 types of qualifications for GCE A and AS Levels and 750 types of qualifications for GCSEs, there were 1,750 different types of National Vocational Qualifications and 2,750 Vocationally Related Qualifications.

The biggest Awarding Organisations for ‘other’ (non GCE/GCSE qualifications) is Edexcel with 20%, closely followed by City and Guilds and OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA). These three Awarding Organisations are responsible for almost half of ‘other’ qualifications. The Government’s proposed reforms will heighten their importance. Private sector organisations also show a growing interest.

More direct relationships between employers organisations, Awarding Organisations and providers should be explored and developed for more direct involvement of employers and their representatives. If skills and qualifications for the workplace are to become genuinely demand-led, employers, providers and Awarding Organisations need confidence in responses from the Skills Funding Agency.

CONCLUSION

The Wolf Report and Government’s responses so far suggest that the door is at last open for much more direct employer involvement in the design and progress of skills and qualifications for employees. This is new territory and there is much to explore.