ANYBODY who thinks that continuous assessment is a cop-out compared with examinations had better not tussle with Dominique Campbell.

As an assessor with the Department of Employment, Ms Campbell is familiar with the principles of competence-based training. But she admits she was unprepared for the rigours of the system devised by the Management Charter Initiative (MCI), which is becoming increasingly favoured by the public sector training authorities.

'It was a lot harder than I originally thought it would be. I found that it was vital to treat the process as an integral part of my professional development rather than as an added extra, or bolt-on,' she says.

Alan Kelleher, a fellow Department of Employment trainer, agrees that the scheme is tougher than expected, but feels the effort has been worthwhile. 'My whole approach to planning and organising, as well as my general ability to manage people, has improved immensely.' In particular, he points to his ability during the programme to 'gauge my development within a structured framework and measure my progress against nationally accepted management standards'.

This aspect figured prominently in the decision of the Local Government Management Board (LGMB), which advises local authorities on management and training issues, to adopt the system known as Crediting Competence as its preferred training scheme for the 250,000 managers within its ambit.

Michael Clarke, the board's chief executive, says that when the move was announced last December the increasing number of national vocational qualifications for managers created a proliferation of methods of achieving them, which could be potentially confusing. 'It was felt important to promote, on behalf of local government, a national scheme which offers flexibility of access for individuals and a stringent quality-control system in which local authorities, regions and the board could play an active part.'

The MCI was set up by the Confederation of British Industry and other employers' groups in the late Eighties, in the wake of two separate reports that demonstrated how far behind their overseas counterparts British managers were in terms of training. The organisation, which is backed by the Government, is establishing standards for all levels of management, from supervisors to senior executives.

Central to this process is Crediting Competence, a programme that the MCI claims is unique in its approach to developing a way of giving experienced managers credit for what they already know and do. In a fillip to those who hold that the University of Life has more to offer than fancy business schools, the scheme goes against established training practices with their emphasis on off-the-job learning by accepting that knowledge, understanding and performance are equally important methods of developing managers.

Managers prepare a portfolio of work in the course of their duties, have it reviewed and, if necessary, receive advice on how to bring it up to acceptable national standards. Because there are no tight schedules, candidates can complete their projects at their own pace and according to their workload. The work is then independently inspected by approved assessors and, provided it meets the requirements, the managers gain the appropriate national vocational qualification.

Although primarily aimed at the manager who has years of experience but no pieces of paper to show for it, the programme is also applicable to those just starting out and to any manager who can demonstrate what they have done. In addition, while it can be tailored to the specific needs of an individual or orgainisation, the scheme can be used in the voluntary and private arenas as well as the public sector.

Indeed, MCI's Crediting Competence manager, Fabian Partigliani, believes this is of vital importance. 'The public sector deserves and needs the same type of management evaluation and development as the private sector, and it is only through adopting common ground in training - through Crediting Competence - that it is possible to start really comparing and transferring skills,' he says. Accordingly, a public sector level 3 NVQ for supervisors would carry the same value as one gained in the private sector.

Since the launch of Crediting Competence in April 1991, 100 licensed centres at colleges, training agencies, consultancies and employers around Britain have helped 3,500 managers through the process. But the Local Government Management Board, a founder member of the MCI and the largest user to date, is just getting going. Although it has 10 regional offices, it will initially offer the scheme through the South-West, South-East and Yorkshire and Humberside branches only.

However, Keith Henfry, the board's technical development manager, stresses that local authorities will not be forced down the Crediting Competence path. They will receive advice on schemes run by the Business and Technical Education Council, the Royal Society for the Arts and others. 'But we think that most local authorities will prefer this one.'

Certainly, it would be hard to surpass the enthusiasm of Rotherham City Council, where more than 100 employees are going through programmes for supervisors, line managers and middle managers. Although John Duffy, head of training and development, stresses that all are pilot programmes to enable the scheme to be assessed, he sees the programme as central to the council's commitment to providing a quality service. 'This is why we are very keen. The council is keen to embrace it as part of our training overhaul,' he says. The practical emphasis means that properly trained managers will be able to deliver a quality service - while complementary tests and interviews ensure they are aware of models of good practice. But for all the eagerness, Mr Henfry is under no illusions about the scale of the job.

As well as setting up more licensed centres to broaden the service, the board must look at the vertical range on offer. With 1.8 million employees excluding teachers under its control, 'it is not easy to tell who is a manager'. At the moment, it is assumed there are 250,000 ranging from supervisor to chief executive. But this situation might evolve, and the MCI has only just announced a project to develop standards for senior managers. Since the organisation is acknowledging the 'sensitivities' of attempting to establish, for the first time, benchmarks for such high-ranking folk, the reality - when and if it comes - is bound to be fraught with difficulty.

But if the experience of Ms Campbell is anything to go by, the trauma could have great benefits for the public as well as subordinates. She says: 'Going through the process has made me look closely at how I operate as a manager, both of people and other areas, such as budgets and information. One of the main benefits has been that I am now more confident in my ability to take decisions and delegate work to others.'

(Photograph omitted)