Chapter 6 – Developments in the 21st Century

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series The History of commercial & Technical Examinations

The last chapter will be less concerned with the history of examinations but will focus on the latest government proposals to reform the examination system including technical and commercial examinations and the emerging agenda on skills.

A Review on Skills

Skills still seem to be on the government’s agenda if only by counting the number of times the word appears on publications and press conferences. Whether or not they truly understand what skills are and what is needed now and it the future remains to be seen but if history is any thing to go by I am not optimistic (see skills article on this website).
In spite of some recent progress in improving skill, levels in Britain still lag behind our major competitors. Table 1 shows the qualifications of adults in Britain in 2007 and the projections –sorry ambitions – cited in the Leitch Review. It’s now all about ambitious targets and being world class! A new expression has recently appeared in the lexicology from the financial world namely upticking so I presume if these ambitions fail we will have to be involved in downcrossing!

Table 1. The Qualifications of Adults in Britain.

Year 2007 2020 Ambition to achieve:
Low (% qualified to at least level 2) 71 77 90+
Intermediate (% qualified to at least level 3) 51 58 68
High (% qualified to at least level 4) 31 41 40

The OECD published a survey of skills in 2008 that again highlighted the poor standing of Britain in terms of international rankings of skill level as table 2 shows. The 2020 column shows the predictions if the country continues to operate its present approach to skills development.

Table 2. International Rankings in the OECD 30 Countries.


Skill Level 2006 (actual) 2020 Ambition- to be in top:
Low 17 23 8
Intermediate 18 21 8
High 12 10 8

If one accepts and extrapolates these ambitions to get into the top quartile by 2020 we can see from tables 1 and 2 the country has to achieve a remarkable step function/quantum leap.

In order to achieve the skills agenda the government has yet again created a ridiculously complicated and divisive set of structures at local/regional/national levels with a multitude of national organisations/quangos/agencies many of them irrelevant as they manifestly duplicate effort.

>Sustainable growth
>Science and innovation
>Business success
>Economic performance
-incl. training and benefits
HEFCE Ofqual
>Funding and managing SSCs
>Reducing skills gaps/shortages
>Productivity and performance
>Learning supply
>HE funding Regulator:
>Advice on 14-19 qualifications Monitoring and advising on:
>Curriculum and qualifications development
>Assessment development
>Performance measures
>Skills provision
>Inspection >HE inspection >Excellence in FE
Connexions AACS RDAs RSPs ESBs
>Advice and guidance for 13-19 year olds >Advice and guidance for adults >Economic development and regeneration
>Aligning skills planning with economic planning >(Proposed) to bring local employment and skill activity under local employer leadership
Local Authorities/LEA
>Funding for 16-19 year olds
>Wide range of learning and skills services

A bit like a Jackson Pollack picture full of chaotic and confused detail with layers of bureaucracy, (an example of chaos theory), that will inevitably create a great deal of inertia and a great deal of expenditure of money and time. The structures are far too complex and divisive. The skills agenda needs urgent action not another array of organisations convening committees/focus groups etc. to again rehearse all of the same issues again. This country thrives on building up structures for meetings, discussions and delaying tactics before taking any real decisions. When one visits other countries especially in East Asia one is struck about how quickly decisions are made and actions taken and they often refer to our disposition to have innumerable meetings stretching over long periods of time. The classic mistake was to arbitrarily create two government departments namely DCSF and DIUS to represent schools, colleges, universities innovation etc. This split of responsibilies has and will continue to cause confusion particularly in terms of the skills agenda. Just as the government was developing vocational qualifications in schools with the intention of strengthening partnerships between colleges and schools they created two separate departments of government. The split seems to be predicated on a Ministers preference. The split has created a paradoxical situation with some of the aspects of the skills agenda spanning the schools and post-16 education and training sectors in a rather arbitrary fashion. Also with two Ministers responsible for the Departments and the multitude of quangos it surely is a recipe for disaster.

A great deal of faith is being placed in the SSCs which up to now have achieved very little just like their predecessors. The current 25 SSCs represent just over 90% of the occupational standards sectors. Unlike their predecessors they will need once and for all to work with employers and employer organisations based on equal and open partnerships to achieve greater consensus on what is required. The SSCs must also work closely with Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) as well as the larger companies. The occupational standards must precisely detail the achievements that individuals require to have demonstrated in order for them to gain a qualification. The SSCs must determine what is required if we are to make any real progress on the skills agenda and equally important to more clearly define the role and purpose of technical and commercial education and training.


This new landscape has added yet more acronyms to the alphabet soup as figure 3 attempts to show:

Table 3. Acronyms and Definitions

Acronym Definition
BERR Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory
DCSF Department for Children, Schools and Families
DIUS Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills
DWP Department for Work and Pensions
HEFCE HE Funding Council for England
JACQA Joint Advisory Committee for Qualifications Approval
LSC Learning and Skills Council
LSIS Learning and Skills Improvement Service
Ofqual Office of the qualifications and examinations regulator
Ofsted Office for standards in education, children’s services and skills
QAA Quality Assurance Agency
QCDA Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency
SFA Skills Funding Council (to replace LSC)
SSC Sector Skills Council
YPLA Young People’s Learning Agency (to replace LSC)
AACS Adult Advancement and Careers Service
Connexions Information and advice for young people
ESB Employer Skills Boards
LA Local Authority
LEA Local Education Authority
RDA Regional Development Agency
RSP Regional Skills Partnership

Diplomas and Apprenticeships.

In 2004 the government published plans for diplomas and apprenticeship programmes. The diploma proposals were for 14-19 olds and organised around the first four levels of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) namely:

  • Entry
  • Foundation
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced

Diplomas at each level will interlock and allow smooth progress from one level to another or between subject diplomas at the same level.
This framework will eventually integrate with Modern Apprenticeships (MAs) as illustrated below:

Diplomas Modern Apprenticeships (MAs)
Advanced Open Specialised Advanced MAs
Intermediate Open Specialised Foundation MAs
Foundation Open Specialised Entry to Employment Programmes
Entry Personalised Personalised Entry to Employment Programmes

Modern apprenticeships will be linked to the new diploma system by clear progression routes and the ultimate intention is to fully integrate them into the reformed 14 to 19 national qualifications framework (NQF).
All the diplomas possess the same basic structure namely core, main learning and common skills that will be developed across the curriculum.

Components of the main learning will consist of:

  • Specialisation
  • Complementary learning
  • Learner choice.

The ‘core’ will consist of:

  • Mathematical skills (known previously as application of number and more recently as functional mathematics)
  • Communication
  • ICT
  • Extended project
  • Wider activities
  • Personal planning, review and guidance.

Diplomas at all levels have a common core to allow the students to:

  • Achieve at least level 2 in mathematical skills, communication and ICT
  • Undertake an extended project or personal challenge in order to develop and demonstrate analytical, planning, research and presentational skills
  • Develop a range knowledge, skills and attributes, such as self-awareness, self-management and interpersonal skills
  • Engage in wider activities based on personal interest, contribution to the community and experience of employment
  • Access personal training, review and guidance to underpin their study programme, consolidate their learning and inform their choices.

The ‘main learning’ forms the majority of the diploma programme and will:

  • Ensure achievement and progression within specific subjects and lines of learning
  • Develop the skills, knowledge and understanding needed for specific occupations, HE and further learning
  • Support specialisation by providing any required or optional complementary learning
  • Select programmes to pursue their own interests and/or provide subject breadth and contrast with any specialist areas of study.

Many of the components of the new diplomas will grow out of current GCSEs, ‘AS’ and ‘A’ levels practices and some of the elements of vocational qualifications e.g. CGLI and BTEC. Note the continuing and pernicious influence of academic/general qualifications – so inevitably these diplomas will be doomed to succeed!
Pre-16 students will continue to study the statutory curriculum, gaining recognition towards the award of a diploma where appropriate. The students will be able to opt for vocational elements but will not be able to specialise in specific occupational areas.

Post-16 students will have greater choice to select between:

  • A range of specialised diploma lines, designed to provide a basis for progression within lines of leaning covering the range of vocational and academic
  • Open diplomas which enable the student to select a mixed pattern of subjects or lines of learning.

The structure and other specifications for assessment and subsequent grading are complicated and bureaucratic and I fear will again fail to address the need to create a curriculum and set of experiences that are fit for purpose for all students especially those who wish to progress into further study and/or work in technical and practical occupations. The need to prepare young people for the demands of employment i.e. for them to be work ready is essential and I fear these new diplomas will not achieve this essential aim. The opportunities for work experience are very limited on the diplomas and are not of sufficient duration to provide the student with a real understanding of the employment and job specific skills required for their chosen occupational area. A fundamental review of work experience is urgently required to design a more effective model and careful consideration given to its purpose especially at the pre-16 stage. Employers need to be convinced of the purpose of such work placements both in terms of their value to them and the students. A major issue is how work experience and work placements are prioritised for different student populations e.g. those pursuing occupationally specific programmes and school students on pre-vocational or general foundation programmes. Employers are often under a great deal of pressure and find it difficult to effectively manage students on work experience programmes particularly for pre-16 year olds because of Health and Safety Regulations. Also greater priority should be given to post-16 students on work experience programmes as they will in all probability have been placed in a company that reflects their future chosen occupation.

The responsibility for the delivery of apprenticeships will reside with the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) which will be launched in April 2009. The Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for England (SASE) will set the requirements with which each recognised Apprenticeship framework in England must comply. The primary role of the SASE is to provide the funding for the apprenticeship programmes and will work in partnership with the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs), Standard Setting Bodies (SSCBs), employers, trade unions, training providers in order to provide support for the apprenticeships. Initially the NAS will be part of the LSC and will eventually move to the organisation that will replace the LSC movement namely the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). The NAS will also work closely with the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) to ensure links with the pre-16 apprenticeships and to ensure sufficient places for modern apprenticeships. In addition the NAS will work closely with Employers, Employer organisations, Trade Union learning representatives, Connexions, Jobcentre Plus and other advice and guidance organisations to maximise information about the value of apprenticeships. The NAS will award the certificates for apprenticeship programmes and oversee the statistical returns for all the apprenticeship programmes.

Federation of Awarding Bodies

The Federation was established in 2000 by the largest vocational awarding bodies namely:

  • City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI)
  • Edexcel
  • Oxford, Cambridge and the RSA Examinations Board (OCR)
  • The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry Examinations Board (LCCIE)

Its objectives were:

  • Provide a forum for awarding bodies to collectively consider developments in vocational qualifications
  • Formulate coordinated action in response to developments
  • Encourage positive relationships and communication between awarding bodies and other key organisations
  • Establish an ongoing dialogue with the UK Government and its agencies to represent the common interests of the Federation and to lobby on key issues.

Since 2001 FAB has extended its membership network to over 80 organisations. The Federation works closely with the Joint Council for Qualifications (JQC) and the Vocational Qualification Review Programme (VQRP).

Personal observation

In spite of its remit can FAB be confident that the awarding bodies which are surely competitive will collaborate in an open and transparent fashion? After all some of the awarding bodies are for profit organisations whilst others are charities so it is an interesting question to pose. What is the balance between competition operating within a free market and the requirement to collaborate?

Qualifications Framework.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has recently set out the qualifications framework beyond 2013 namely:

  • GCSE and ‘A’ levels 
  • Diplomas
  • Apprenticeships
  • Foundation Learning Tier (FLT) Progression Pathways.

The last major reform of the examination system was in 1997, leading to the merger of NCVQ with its schools equivalent, the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA), to create a single Qualifications and Curriculum Authority(QCA). The creation of QCA resulted in even more regulation, reinforcing the view that the government wanted a nationalised system in order to exercise greater central control. Currently all qualifications, however small, are subjected to complex and rigorous QCA requirements. In general the QCA procedures have caused delays and frustration in the approval process for qualifications and their related examinations across all sectors of education, particularly the post-16 sector. Clearly there is nothing wrong with high quality standards but the current situation is far too demanding and politicised. The QCA is to be replaced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) and the new chief executive is an accountant; no comment!

The new proposed qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) is credit based. It is currently (2008) being piloted in order to make qualifications particularly vocational ones are ‘more flexible and easier to understand’. Every unit and qualification in the new framework will be expressed in terms of a credit value –one credit representing 10 hours’ of learning as well as a level ranging from entry level to level 8. Such a structure it is hoped will allow learners to gain qualifications at their own pace along flexible routes. Qualifications will be defined in terms of size namely Awards (1 to 12 credits), Certificates (13 to 36 credits) and Diplomas (37 credits +).

The current national qualifications framework is shown in figure 1 for positioning qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. It comprises a basic entry level and 8 main levels of qualifications.

Figure 1. The New National Qualifications Framework (NQF).


Level Examples
Entry Level (1,2 and 3) Entry Level Certificates and Awards
Level 1 NVQ level 1, GCSE grade D – G,
BTEC Introductory Certificate.
Level 2 NVQ Level 2, GCSE A* – C,
BTEC First.
Level 3 NVQ Level 3, GCE ‘A’ Level,
BTEC National.
Level 4 University Certificate.
Level 5 HNC/HND, Foundation Degree.
Level 6 Honours Degree.
Level 7 Masters Degree.
Level 8 Doctorate.

The National Qualifications Framework (NQF) will be replaced by the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) in 2010 after the evaluation of all the trials of the vocational diplomas etc.

Personal observation

The qualification and examination landscape is still one that possesses increasing entropy (i.e. a measure of the disorder of a system) and as a result one that is confusing to employers, learners and parents. The current situation has not been helped by recent contradictory and paradoxical government policies and their clumsy attempts to exercise greater central control and yet at the same time encourage the so-called free market to rip. The situation is also not helped by the plethora of quangos, working parties and other government sponsored agencies all attempting to influence educational policy. One of the most recent perplexing government policies is the wish to grant awarding powers to private companies – the first ones announced being: McDonalds, Flybe and Network Rail. The QCA gave the three companies official “awarding body status”, allowing them to confer nationally accredited qualifications.

Vocational Qualifications

Approximately 3,250,000 vocational qualifications were awarded in the UK in 2006-07. Table 1 shows the growth of qualifications awarded between 2002/03 and 2006/07 for all ages of candidates.

Table 1. Number of Qualifications Awarded between 2002/03 and 2006/07.

Year 2002/03 2003/04 2004/05  2005/06 2006/07
No. of awards in millions 1.5 2.0 2.5 3.0 3.5

Vocational qualifications include 673,000 NVQS/SVQS spanning levels 1 to 5 this representing an 67% increase over the 5 years and 2.3 million vocational related qualifications (VRQs) representing over a threefold increase over the 5 years. Approximately 250,000 vocational qualifications (NVQS/SVQs) at levels 2 and 3 were achieved through Apprenticeship programmes. The majority of NVQs were achieved in FE colleges (270,000 representing 40%) and private providers (260,000 representing 39%). Approximately 10% were delivered by employers. Approximately 50% of VRQs were achieved in FE and tertiary colleges, with private providers contributing about 268,000 qualifications representing 19% of the total.

Approximately 11,000 Foundation degrees were achieved (level 5) in 2006/07. Around 30,000 HNDs and Diplomas of HE were achieved in 2006/07. Approximately 100,000 vocationally related honours, higher degrees and professional qualifications were achieved in 2006/07. Looks promising but what needs to understand what vocational means across these awards.

It might be helpful to describe some of the most common vocational qualifications awarded by occupational sectors. Table 2 shows the most common vocational qualifications in 2006and 2007.

Table 2. Vocational Qualifications by Occupational Sector for 2006 and 2007.

NVQ/SVQs Awarded 2007 2006 VRQs Awarded 2006 2007
Health, Public Services and care 23% 23% ICT 19% 22%
Retail and Commercial Enterprise 20% 20% Health, Public Services and Care 18% 14%
Business Administration 16% 17% Leisure, Travel and Tourism 12% 12%
Construction 12% 11% Business, Administration 11% 11%
Engineering 9% 9% Engineering and Manufacturing 10% 11%
Manufacturing 4% 5% Arts, Media and Publishing 7% 6%

Source: DCSF (2008), DfES (2007).

Table 3 shows the higher education qualifications awarded by subject discipline in 2007.

Table 3. H.E. Qualifications awarded by Subject Discipline in 2007.

HE Discipline Number of Qualifications Awarded in 2007
Business and Administrative Studies 97,680
Subjects Allied to Medicine 84,360
Education 72,255
Social Studies 60,415
Creative Arts and Design 46,595
Biological Sciences 43,005
Engineering and Technology 38,620
Languages 31,440
Computer Sciences 31,270
Law 30,340

Source: HESA. 2007.

A brief explanation of Vocationally Related Qualifications (VRQs). These are a wide range of recognised work-related qualifications, including BTEC, CGLI and OCR Nationals. VRQs are knowledge – based qualifications some of which include practical work. The awards are available at various levels and vary considerably in size.

The government intends to introduce Skills Accounts from 2010 to replace the discredited Individual Learning accounts (ILAs) and will provide ‘Vouchers’ to help fund learning programmes and improve access to a range of learning services. Foundation Degrees are projected to grow from 72,000 places in 2007 to 100,000 places in 2010. The introduction of the new applied/vocational diplomas from 2008 is intended to produce a pool of students more attuned to work-related learning. In Wales vocational qualifications are offered within the Welsh Baccalaureate (WB) through additional specialist learning component of every diploma.

Some final comments

Whilst researching and writing this history of the development of a national system of technical and commercial examinations a number of fundamental and perplexing questions and issues have emerged. Paradoxically from the 18th to the mid-20th century successive governments were reluctant to get involved with technical education but then adopted a more interventionist approach. This centralist control has accelerated particularly over the past twenty years and is now characterised by heavy prescription of the curriculum and the related examination system. The current situation is out of balance with too much government influence and control. This major shift in emphasis from a hands off approach to one of tight regulation and control raises, for me, some fundamental and inter-related questions that need to be addressed in order to restore a more sensible balance namely:
Awarding body impartiality and independence.
Can awarding bodies be truly impartial and independent agents within a rigid national statutory framework?

Challenge of a centralist driven policy.
How in the current political climate with its increasingly centralistic philosophy towards education policy can local needs be recognised and managed by the awarding bodies within a heavily prescribed and regulated curriculum and examination system?

Issues associated with freedom and the awarding bodies.
With the current heavily prescribed curriculum, examination system, inspection regimes and regulation how much freedom can the awarding bodies exercise in managing and influencing the examination system?

Awarding bodies as businesses especially those that are for profit organisations.
How can the awarding bodies operate in a heavily prescriptive climate and yet continue to be impartial agents able to respond to employer needs and maintain a competitive edge over the other awarding bodies?

Definition of Terms.
Many of the terms associated with skills and technical/vocational examinations have developed over many years and as such have become somewhat ambiguous and confusing to many end users. Clear distinctions must be made about the differences between work based and work placed learning and assessment. There needs to be a better understanding about what is meant by pre-vocational, general and vocational programmes and qualifications. The term skills needs to be fundamentally redefined in order to match more precisely the future nature and needs of employment with a much consideration given to the meaning of generic, employability, and specific work skills and resultant understanding of this ‘slippery’ term. Finally the definition of training needs to be clarified as it is still perceived as providing a narrow range of skills that are learnt by rote.
Number of awarding bodies.
How many awarding bodies should there be? Perhaps the government is gradually moving to a situation where there might just be very few say, one for technical/vocational and another for academic qualifications! However this does not accord with the government’s intention to allow colleges and private companies to act as awarding bodies.
Assessment of work based learning.
I still feel that this critical element has still not been given the consideration that it deserves. Traditional methods of defining and assessing skills and skill acquisition persist. There is an urgent need for a more meaningful approach to the whole area of work based teaching and learning and most certainly its assessment.
The current value placed on qualifications.
A number of commentators have voiced concern about the over emphasis that is currently placed on examinations and the resultant qualifications. Has the examination system just become a business/industry that has lost sight of the real purpose and justification of examinations and assessments? Is the qualification just a means of assessing/measuring the supposed effectiveness of educational institutions?

The current obsession with testing/grade inflation.

Currently schools are required to carry out innumerable tests on pupils/students which deflect teachers from their primary role. Teaching for tests also weakens subject knowledge. A recent survey (2009) showed that mathematics standards had changed very little over the past thirty years in spite of all the statements about better examination grades in GCSE and GCE ‘A’ level examinations. Continued concerns about grade inflation with GCSE and GCE ‘A’ levels raises a number of serious questions about standards and the content of the syllabuses. These concerns mirror similar issues about grade inflation with degree classifications.

Some recent publications and reports in the late 2000s.

  • In 2004 ‘14-19 Curriculum and Qualifications Reform’ published.
  • In 2007 Quality Improvement of National Occupational Standards published. Mackinnon Partnership.
  • In 2008 Consultation on National Occupational Standards published. UKCES.
  • In 2008 The VQ Landscape. A Review of vocational Qualifications in the UK. Edge Foundation.

I hope this short history of technical and commercial examinations has proved of value to readers. I will continue to correct and extend the history in the future and track the progress of the latest developments in vocational programmes and qualifications.

A comprehensive chronology and glossary of terms on examinations accompanies this history and can be found on this website.

Series Navigation<< Chapter 5 – Developments in the 20th Century – ContinuedThe History of Technical and Commercial Examinations –Glossary >>

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