Making Qualifications Work for Enterprise

Back in the late 1980s I made my living from writing national occupational standards and developing NVQs.  It was an exciting time to be involved in vocational education and training.

We were developing ‘standards of a new kind’ and the focus was on describing the outcomes of excellent occupational competence.  Standards and the qualifications based on them were demanding – reflecting real occupational competence.  The employment coalition was very much on board with this attempt to define ‘high’ performance.

However there was a problem.

Because the standards were demanding, relatively few people were able to achieve them. At least not right from the ‘get go’.  And because we were pretty exhaustive in specifying high performance in all situations that the role holder might have to handle (including infrequent but critical contingencies) the range of the qualification meant that they might take years to master.  Just imagine that.  Taking years of training and experience to be recognised as ‘fully qualified’.  What is it that Gladwell says about 10 000 hours?

However the ‘standards of a new kind’ came under pressure.  People were not getting qualified quickly enough.  In the league tables that compared ‘qualifications’ between the UK and its major competitors we were falling  behind.  Awarding bodies were not shifting enough certificates and as a result were not making money.  Something had to change.  And it did.

From my point of view the ‘new standards’ were rapidly diluted.  Assessment processes were undermined.  The qualification industry became a mass production unit instead of a crucible for excellence.  Within  a few years we had got ourselves a much more ‘qualified’ workforce.  But real competence, mastery of a trade, was hard to find.

And this is the situation that faces standards setting bodies at the moment.  Unless you can convince funders that you will develop a qualification that finds an immediate market and can operate at appropriate volumes you are unlikely to get funded.  Instead of qualifications driving up standards in the workplace they often reflect a diluted version of it.

By the mid 1990s I had completely lost my stomach for such work.  Writing standards with little or no aspirational content.  No serious attempts to define outcomes that indicated the presence of real skill and experience.  Little investment in progression routes to excellence.

But the most insidious impact of the new qualifications regime is that ‘we are all competent now’.  We can no longer rely on qualifications to be accurate indicators of real skill, quality and experience.  And this impacts not just on the economy but on communities too.


  1. Thomas Hallam says:

    Hi Mike,

    Nice post – to expand further, how do you think this specifically impacts on enterprise? What method of ‘qualification’ should be used?

    Are we trying to challege people to the extent that it pushes them away from entrepreneurship with tough courses only suitable for high-flyers or should we be trying to reach a wider base and ‘ease them in’ to the idea of entreprenership?

    • I think that attempts to develop qualifications for enterprise stand a chance of doing more harm than good. For many of our best entrepreneurs starting a business offered them a very different set of keys to the kingdom as they failed to shine in education. Once we have enterprise courses embedded in education it is likely that they will do poorly on these too and another option will be psychologically closed down for them. The reason that so many successful entrepreneurs failed at school is not because they are daft, or that the subjects are hard, but that the pedagogy of education does not reflect their learning preferences.

      The market is the ultimate mechanism of assessment, not some random awarding body.

      Personally, yes, I think we should tell a brutally honest story about the downsides of entrepreneurship as well as the upsides. If we CAN put someone off then we probably should. If they give up in the face of a little discouragement from us then we have probably saved them a lot of misery and some cash. But also by only supporting the most determined and realistic we will improve the start up survival rate, as the creation of successful businesses is probably the best way of encouraging an enterprise culture.

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