Vocational courses 'lack quality control'

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BRITISH qualifications are offered abroad without any guarantee that the students who receive them have reached the required standard, the head of the national body that oversees them says.

John Hillier, chief executive of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, has promised a rule change to stop colleges in Britain from doing unsupervised private deals with foreign training organisations.

On a recent visit to Oman he met an assessor for British bricklaying courses who told him that changes had been made because bricks were laid differently there. It transpired that the qualification had been 'franchised out' for money by a British college.

Mr Hillier has called representatives of the 125 organisations that are authorised to award the new National Vocational Qualifications to a meeting today to discuss the issue. Although these organisations may be able to ensure quality, he says, the colleges with which they deal may not be so scrupulous when they sell the awards on to foreign centres.

The awarding bodies, which range from large organisations, including City and Guilds, to trade bodies such as the British Polymer Training Council, have formed links with 68 countries.

Mr Hillier said: 'It is extremely concerning that the value of our national qualifications could be undermined if people gaining an NVQ abroad are not being assessed to the high standards we expect at home. Lack of quality assurance procedures will mean we are short-selling ourselves, our vocational qualification system and our overseas candidates.'

He said the rule change would require colleges selling courses overseas to tell their awarding body what they were doing.

The new vocational qualifications, which will eventually cover every occupation from law to hairdressing, have already met with opposition in Britain. Last night one of their leading critics, Professor Alan Smithers, of Manchester University, said the discovery of the overseas irregularities smacked of 'chickens coming home to roost'.

If Mr Hillier and his colleagues had introduced rigorous examinations instead of 'competence' tests conducted by tutors along with their students, they would be much easier to regulate, he said.

'I suspect that what is happening abroad is also happening in this country,' Professor Smithers said. 'If they don't like it the remedy is in their hands. It is to devise a system of practical and written tests to guarantee the standard of the qualification.'

Sheila Perry, NVQ development manager for the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry Examinations Board, which intends to export qualifications to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Cyprus and Singapore, said it would be able to ensure that staff were in place to verify standards.

'It is a recognition that these courses are proving to be useful, popular and valuable within the UK and that maybe they will be just as useful overseas,' she said.