Ofqual removed the Qualification Credit Framework (QCF) rules on 30 September 2015. Although designed with the laudable intention to make vocational qualifications easier to access, the QCF in practice assumed that the vocational skills that build technical competence were able to be easily fragmented into units. The QCF set detailed design rules that every vocational qualification had to meet. But some of those rules were simply wrong. For example, that vocational qualifications didn't need to assess a learner's skills and competence holistically.
My 2013 Government review of Adult Vocational Qualifications recommended that the QCF rules be removed, and I was pleased when Ofqual decided, after extensive consultation, that these rules should go.
My review called on employers to step up their engagement in skills development and take ownership of occupational standards. I strongly believe employers must start with standards in order to do this. Over the past year, the engagement with hundreds of employers on Apprenticeship reforms has demonstrated the commitment and interest employers have with skills standards. We now need to harness the energy to support continued employer leadership of standards development which in turn will support qualification development and review. With the removal of the QCF rules, innovation in qualification development, design and assessment is now enabled.
But arguably our real challenge in the UK lies in our ability to turn our skills and knowledge base into world class businesses with high-value jobs. As the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) highlighted in its recent report "Growth through People", business leaders, employers and policy-makers need to recognise the importance of the workplace and how skills are developed and deployed within it. This means thinking differently about job design, use of technology, work organisation and effective leadership and management. Firm-level initiatives such as Investors in People have supported businesses to improve performance through better development and use of people.
The drive for uniformity under QCF rules inhibited innovation and took away the focus on meeting the needs of our diverse economy. For vocational qualifications to signal real value to employers and learners, they must be designed around the skills needed by each industry - not around bureaucratic rules. In short, the QCF failed to recognise that neither vocational skills – nor employers – should be treated as a homogeneous group; one size does not fit all.
From now on we will use a simple framework – the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) – to help us understand qualifications by their size and level of demand. Credits and unitisation can continue where employers want it, but critically the regulator will not require it and the SFA will no longer focus its funding only on unitised qualifications. The RQF will support a relevant, modern and flexible approach. It allows for vocational qualifications to be designed in the way that works for the particular skills being assessed and, crucially, it continues to be referenced to the European Qualifications Framework to support the mobility of labour.
Ofqual's focus is now on the quality of qualifications throughout their lifecycle, not on up-front administrative checks. It is also well under way in making major improvements to the information it provides about qualifications, in line with the conclusions of my report. This can only be a good thing. Employers, students, parents and teachers alike need much better access to information to help them make good choices about qualifications and careers.
But much remains to be done. The challenges that the QCF tried to address still exist. And the removal of the QCF will only make it possible for better qualifications to be developed; it will not make that happen.
So what's next? The spotlight is now trained on the awarding bodies and there can be no excuses. They must demonstrate, when their regulator comes knocking, that their vocational qualifications have genuine support from employers in their sector and provide real progression to higher study, apprenticeships or employment. Ofqual has overhauled its legal processes in the last six months and awarding bodies should be in no doubt the regulator will use its powers where it has just cause.
However effective regulation is only part of the picture. There are difficult systemic issues to address: How can employers effectively contribute to the skills system? What should Government's role be where an industry cannot or will not engage? How can the voice of small businesses be heard?
At UKCES we have a driving ambition to encourage more and better investment in the skills and employment opportunities for people in the UK. This goal is key to developing our global competitiveness and to providing good jobs.
The removal of the QCF has opened a door, and if employers and awarding bodies now seize this opportunity to work together, I believe that we will have a qualifications system that will make a richer contribution to our economic growth.
Nigel Whitehead is group managing director at BAE Systems and a UK Commissioner for Employment and Skills