Government should be cautious over VQ reform

5 March 2014

Responding to the announcement by the Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock MP, of the plan to reduce ‘the number of under-used and low value qualifications which are available for taxpayer funding’ – including courses and qualifications in engineering, languages, manufacturing and construction – David Hughes, Chief Executive of NIACE, said:

“We understand that there are lots of pressures on public funding and that the Government is looking to save money where it can and prioritise the qualifications that it believes will have the most significant outcomes for learners, employers and the economy. There is a definite need for vocational qualifications to be better recognised and valued by employers. If this achieves that then it will be a helpful move.

“However, we would advise Government to be cautious. For many adults, returning to learning can be an extremely anxious experience, especially for those who didn’t do well at school or for others who have lost confidence through ill-health or redundancy. Often, people find so-called ‘low-value’ courses a great way to step back into learning, to help them rebuild their confidence and they then go on to take further courses and qualifications.

“We are also concerned that blanket rules about the size of qualifications will mean that good and useful courses and qualifications will be axed. Also it can be a challenge for adults to find the time and space to learn in their busy and crowded lives. This means they may be more motivated into learning by smaller qualifications so the key is to build confidence and self-esteem in many adults with smaller courses before they get onto a qualification which is more work-focussed. Cutting off any ‘re-entry point’ or other opportunity that stops adults from learning could mean many people will miss out in the future with obvious knock-on effects for the well-being of the economy and society.”

NIACE knows that courses such as ‘self-tanning, balloon artistry and instructing pole fitness’ are sometimes a vital gateway for adults who are lacking in confidence. A 2012 Adult Learners’ Week award winner, Amanda Scales, from Brighton, began learning as an adult some years ago, gaining a Certificate in Archaeology, but as a single parent of four children, childcare issues prevented her from finishing the full Diploma. “I couldn’t afford a sitter so that I could go to class, and I remember my teacher saying that if I was committed, I would have found a way. I was physically unable to put in the hours, and I was devastated.”

It was a Belly Dancing evening class at a local learning advice centre that gave her the courage to re-enter formal education. One of the centre’s advisors suggested that Amanda should join a New Career Options for Women course, designed to help women access university. Amanda passed the course and began studying Contemporary History at the University of Sussex in 2007, graduating with a 2:1 BA (Hons) degree in 2010 and continuing on to become a qualified teacher in June 2013. “It was the most fantastic experience of my life. It was like Christmas every day, like I was seeing a whole new world that was hidden to me before my education.”

Having met the Minister for Higher Education at the Adult Learners’ Week Parliamentary Reception last year, Amanda was determined to give the cause of adult learning her voice, “I asked to be an ambassador because I want everyone to have the opportunity to gain a voice, self-esteem and liberation through learning.”

One of Amanda’s current projects is the development of a teacher-led course, including resources that target disengaged learners. She said, “The course is inspired by the needs of my family. I want my children to see that no matter what your ability or stage of life, it is possible to engage in learning without fear of failure.”

Working as a freelance teacher for East Sussex Records Office, Amanda is also in the process of planning lessons to coincide with the Great War Centenary. She said, “Learning is hard work, but to be without it crushes confidence, kills ambition and inhibits people from making choices. There were times I thought I might quit, but I’ve achieved so much, and I’m very proud!”