From education to employment

QCF architect gives behind the scenes look at FE’s success story

During the course of 2010 the learning and skills sector will see the implementation of the new Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF). By the end of the year it is planned that all publicly-funded vocational qualifications will be included within the QCF and be based on units carrying their own level and credit value.

The QCF has been designed to make qualifications more flexible and accessible to learners, easier to update and more relevant to employment and employers’ needs. It has also been designed so it can be extended to include a wide range of qualifications, including 14 to 19 and higher-level. Ministers have asked QCDA to consider the inclusion of A Levels, Diplomas and GCSEs after 2013.

While the QCF may be new to many, the roots of this development go back a number of years. In many respects the emergence of the QCF represents a success story for the FE sector and is a rare example of policy development strongly influenced by developments and initiatives in the field.

The story of the development of the QCF goes back at least as far as the early 90s, and research and development work by the Further Education Unit (FEU). The Unit had been set out by government to carry out research into curriculum and staff development for the FE sector. Working with a broad range of experts, colleges and other key providers, the FEU developed a set of proposals first published in A Basis For Credit? (February 1992). Along with a series of subsequent FEU publications the paper proposed:

  • a learning outcomes-based unit specification
  • a unit and credit-based national qualifications framework
  • a system encompassing the full spectrum of achievement in Further Education colleges, from basic skills to higher education/professional levels
  • a common terminology for describing and measuring achievement with definitions of terms such as Unit, Learning Outcome, Assessment Criteria, Credit Value, Level, Credit and Module
  • a common approach across all UK countries

Many of the key principles and features of the QCF can be found in these papers.

The proposals were greeted with considerable enthusiasm and support within Further Education, and in other sectors such as schools, adult and higher education. They gave rise to many local and regional developments based on partnerships between FE colleges, HE institutions and other providers, which used the unit specification to develop various curriculum-based initiatives and progression arrangements.

Open College Networks (OCNs) had used credit for a number of years as a way to recognize achievement outside qualifications and develop alternative progression routes for adult learners. The ABC? unit specification was adopted by OCNs in 1994 and supported their development and expansion over the next decade. A number of other awarding bodies also made use of the unit specification. In Wales and Northern Ireland national credit-based frameworks were developed supported and funded by government.

A national network of more than 300 Further and Higher Education institutions emerged in the 1990s, acting as both a driver for curriculum innovation and institutional change and as a pressure group at national policy level.

A series of government-commissioned reports endorsed the proposals, including the HE report to Choosing to Change (David Robertson HEFC 1994) and the widening participation report Learning Pays (Helena Kennedy FEFC 1997). In 1996, Labour and Liberal Democrat pre-election education policy statements both endorsed the unit and credit-based approaches to qualifications reform.

Despite this, the government remained sceptical, and outside Wales and Northern Ireland developments were confined to institutions and local/ regional based initiatives. OCNs and Access Courses were the main manifestations of the development in the FE sector.

An idea that wont go away

While developments in the field stalled by the late 1990s, the FE sector continued to lobby for adoption of a unit and credit-based qualifications framework. Almost every Green/White paper and sector consultation at the time made mention of it. Fresh impetus finally came in January 2003, when Education Minister David Milliband asked LSC and QCA to lead a national working group to consult on the implementation of a national credit framework.

More than ten years after the publication of A Basis for Credit? the proposals were finally being considered as a basis for reform of the qualifications system. It had been a long journey and there was still some way to go. As an unnamed civil servant once wearily said, “the credit framework is an idea that wont go away”.

Tony Tait led the work of the FEU, FEDA and LSDA, in the area of qualifications and credit frameworks for many years. He is now an independent consultant and a research associate at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Next month Tony Tait will look at how the QCF has taken shape over the passed decade. In a final article in June he will consider the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for the new framework.

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