Standards in vocational and occupational qualifications

2ndReportCR14My first report concentrated on standards in general qualifications. In this report I want to highlight our understanding of standards in vocational and occupational qualifications.

In vocational and occupational qualifications the standards are determined by the knowledge and skills needed to do a job and show that the learner is competent in the area of work required in their sector. Many skills may be exclusively the province of that particular sector. It follows, therefore, that comparisons of qualifications across sectors are of limited value.

Most qualifications that are used in the workplace are based upon the national occupational standards, which ‘specify the skills, knowledge and understanding required to perform competently to the standards required in employment’.1 These are developed by the Sector Skills Councils and overseen by the UK Commission for Education and Skills (UKCES).

The national occupational standards must reflect what each sector requires at the time. That means that they may have to be revised to keep up with changes in the sector. Technological advancements and legislative changes need to be reflected in the standards to ensure qualifications keep pace.

At any given time the qualifications accredited for a particular sector will reflect the current national occupational standards. Awarding organisations develop sector-based qualifications independently but they are all based on the same national occupational standards so comparable outcomes will be expected, with standards maintained over time during their accreditation period. The national occupational standards approval system operated by UKCES, the level descriptors published and maintained by Ofqual and the other regulators and Ofqual's scrutiny of awarding organisations'2 qualifications development systems help to ensure that, for example, a level 2 competency qualification in engineering will be a comparable achievement to a level 2 competency qualification in construction or a level 2 general qualification.

2ndReportCR15When national occupational standards change new qualifications will be developed to reflect the new sector requirements. It then becomes less relevant to talk about standards over time as standards in qualifications for work have to be related to changing job roles. However, it will still be possible to say that someone who gained a level 2 skills-based qualification in engineering in 2009 is operating at the equivalent level within the sector as someone who gained a similar qualification in 2004.

Assessment methods in vocational and occupational qualifications vary enormously. A knowledge-based qualification may be assessed by a written examination very similar to a general qualification; a skills-based qualification may be assessed by observation of the candidate putting their skills into practice, with their underlying knowledge tested perhaps by an online multiple-choice question paper or by answering oral questions.

The assessment is the responsibility of the awarding organisation with the candidates attached to a centre – a college, a training provider or an employer – which has been approved by the awarding organisation offering the qualification. If there is to be a written or ICT-based examination or test the awarding organisation will set and mark it and will require the centre to administer it in a standard way. If assessment is done by observation or by centre-based assignments (internal assessment) the awarding organisation will lay down the requirements for how it is to be carried out and quality assured. For example if a qualification is assessed entirely by observation and oral questioning there will need to be both a qualified assessor and a qualified internal verifier based at the centre and the awarding organisation will send an external verifier to check that procedures have been correctly followed. Ofqual and its fellow regulators specify how different assessment methods are to be applied via their regulatory arrangements and will check that awarding organisations are implementing the requirements correctly.

One difference between general and vocational qualifications is that the learner must provide evidence of achieving all the requirements of the level. There is no possibility of higher achievement in one area balancing lower performance in another. The requirements are defined and what is required as evidence is clearly laid out. The certificate identifies not only the overall qualification and the level achieved but lists clearly, for all to see, the units the learner has successfully completed.

The awarding organisations must approve their centres in much the same way that Ofqual recognises awarding organisations: by checking they have the necessary knowledge, expertise and resources to carry out the assessments accurately and consistently, particularly when the qualifications are mainly internally assessed. Just as Ofqual requires the awarding organisations to undertake their duties conscientiously, so must the awarding organisations rely on their centres.

Awarding organisations must have in place appropriate mechanisms to check that centres follow procedures and must be prepared to take appropriate action when problems arise or if they have concerns. Centres can earn the right to be regarded as lower risk by having – and following – robust procedures. The awarding organisation will look at how learners are guided to make sensible choices of the qualifications and levels available and at the quality assurance mechanisms and processes to ensure that assessment is carried out objectively and without bias.

2ndReportCR16Ofqual’s role in guaranteeing standards in vocational qualifications is therefore very different from our work in general qualifications such as the GCSE or A level. Others are responsible for the articulation of the standards and we are more concerned with quality assurance mechanisms – which are built into the process of assessment and certification – rather than quality control methods that are more appropriate to end-of-course assessments.

    1. UKCES definition: www.ukces.org.uk//upload/pdf/071115%20D%20Final%20NOS%20defnitions%20paper.pdf []
    2. Ofqual and the regulators of external qualifications in Wales (DCELLS) and Northern Ireland (CCEA). []

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