Skip to main content

Look before we leap at NVQs

Last updated 11 May 2008, created 06 January 1995, viewed 597

Kathryn Ecclestone calls for research into the needs of post-16 teacher training before a too-rigid solution is imposed from above. A flurry of activity by government departments and other agencies has brought National Vocational Qualifications for post-16 teacher training one step nearer.

T More…he new Further Education Development Association, set up with a budget of Pounds 7.5 million, will be analysing college lecturers' work. From this the education lead body, (all vocations in the NVQ scheme have their own lead body, which sets the standards), will use the association's work to design NVQ "units" and "elements" of competence.

Meanwhile, the Teacher Training Agency wants a competence-based management development scheme designed for schools, and a Department of Employment study will see if NVQs can be used to train university lecturers.

Until now, there has been no wide debate on the value of NVQs for teachers' professional development. The University Council for the Education of Teachers has set up a working group to look at this, and nine universities have formed a consortium to examine how NVQs will affect their programmes.

In spite of this rush of interest, fundamental questions have still to be answered about whether NVQs are the best way to prepare and inspire professionals.

It is not only a technical question about which type of NVQs to use, and who should design them. A far more important issue is whether NVQs should be used at all.

When Kenneth Clarke was Education Secretary he did much to create an anti-academic climate where attempts to raise any questions about teacher training are routinely dismissed as the last woolly whinging of elitist academics "peddling dogma in their rather remote world", as he once put it. In another simplistic and damaging side-swipe about "barmy theory", he paved the way for supporters of NVQs to talk glibly about "waste-free learning" and the welcome demise of "irrelevant" theory, and to portray taught courses and anything that smacks of "learning for its own sake" as expensive academic indulgences.

We have little evidence of whether NVQs can play an extended role in professional development programmes, but lecturers' experiences do reveal drawbacks and there are worrying tales about how the awards have been used (and abused).

A large task faces any designer of a coherent professional curriculum for the post-compulsory sector. An HM inspector reported recently that about 40 per cent of lecturers have a full certificate in education. Reports from the Further Education Funding Council puts it as high as 70 per cent in some colleges. The Further Education Unit showed in the late 1980s that only 2 per cent of college managers have any formal training for their role.

Despite the patchy pattern of opportunities, demand for a professional learning programme for those intending to teach and those already in place is growing across the whole post-16 sector. Some universities now require academic staff to gain teaching qualifications, while some also offer lecturers the chance to gain Masters degrees in teaching and learning.

However, swathes of the post-16 sector have no access to coherent professional development. Thousands work in adult and community education, the Workers' Educational Association, prison education, careers advice, employment training schemes and community health education. Guidance and admissions workers, personal tutors and counsellors all play a crucial role in students' experience of learning.

Important features of NVQs - learning outcomes, assessment criteria, workplace assessment, unit accreditation - are now part and parcel of existing professional programmes. But many NVQ providers believe that without significant changes, NVQs cannot offer professional development for such a complex sector.

The long lists of competence and assessment criteria were originally seen as the basis for accrediting competence at work. They have increasingly become "syllabuses" for designing learning programmes. This rigid and prescriptive model, where everything must be assessed against detailed performance criteria, is not only cumbersome and tedious, it also gives misleading messages about learning and assessment.

Teachers are increasingly led to believe that knowledge, for example, only exists to "underpin performance". There is a growing tendency to dismiss learning which does not do this, along with anything which is not assessed; teaching and learning to the test is being elevated to a new art form. Other problems arise from using NVQ formats to design learning programmes. Huge amounts of advice are pouring from the awarding bodies and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

As NVQs replace existing programmes, it becomes difficult to ask questions about professional development: our own critical analysis is dissipated through grappling with NVQs' labryinthine complexity and the bureaucratic dreariness of the learning they offer.

But, the growing interest in professional learning shows that many lecturers and their managers continue to want inspiration, new knowledge and challenges. We have to build on this motivation, and review the skills and knowledge which professionals need to take them from being novices to becoming experts. And to do this, we have to resist the tendency to lump all research as just more "barmy theory" and apply it to the uphill task of trying to influence the work of the emerging lead body.

Kathryn Ecclestone is senior lecturer in teacher trainer at the University of Sunderland School of Education.

Downloads and web links

Reviews (0)

Please provide a rating.

Add a review

Contributed by

"s avatar

This user has contributed 0 resources which have been viewed 0 times.