I'm Jeremy Benson, Executive Director for Vocational Qualifications (VQs) at Ofqual, the qualifications regulator for Northern Ireland and England. I’ll be blogging about our new approach to regulating VQs as it develops, and about our work and the issues we're thinking about generally.
In this first blog I want to reflect on the role of qualifications in the wider vocational education and training (VET) system.
At their best, vocational qualifications open doors for employment and demonstrate that people have the skills that employers seek, like for hairdressing or accountancy. But qualifications are only a small part of a much bigger picture - it’s the skills and knowledge that really matter and prepare people to start a job, and then develop further in their careers. Good teaching and learning focuses on developing the skills, knowledge and wider experience that employers look for.
But often qualifications are used for things they weren’t designed for, like judging a school or determining a college’s funding. This can distort teaching and can lead to so-called ‘teaching to the test’, where passing the qualification is the biggest priority – not the development of the skills and knowledge the qualification is trying to recognise.
It can also mean that easily-measured skills, such as the ability to cut hair or audit a balance sheet, are prioritised at the expense of those that aren’t measured so easily, such as teamwork, showing initiative or self-discipline.
If the teaching becomes too distorted, the qualification will not provide students with a good stepping stone into employment, equipped with the skills and knowledge they need to do the job. Like anything (or anyone!), a qualification that is asked to do too many things at once is likely to do none of them particularly well.
This means that Ofqual is in an unusual position. Officially our role is to regulate just one part of the VET system – the qualifications that underpin most training and apprenticeships. But in practice the qualifications we regulate play a big part in defining what skills are taught. So our influence can go well beyond just the regulation of qualifications. We recognise that we have a responsibility to use that influence carefully and wisely, to support good education and training outcomes.
So we are considering how this affects the way we regulate. We are talking to employers in different sectors and of different sizes, as well as colleges, training providers, other public bodies and Government, to understand what they think we should do to strengthen the way qualifications are taught. We have been discussing what information each organisation needs and how they should be able to feed in their experiences of qualifications. We want qualifications to become a well-understood and responsive part of the wider VET system, not one that distorts it.
In my next blog I'll talk about how we’re regulating to make sure that qualifications are of high quality. In the meantime, look out for our recent report on improving functional skills – a good example of how we’re regulating in practice.
Executive Director for Vocational Qualifications