Looking back, the obvious disaster was the decision to turn further education colleges into businesses in direct competition with one other. This led many to close down their building crafts department because their students were the most expensive to educate; those that kept them were forced to adapt to the new reality that money was tied to the successful completion of courses. The result was that students had to show real commitment and dedication if they were to leave the college without passing.
At about the same time, we were introduced to national vocational qualifications. Training and enterprise councils were used to produce league tables of NVQ providers in their area. Some of these reported a pass rate of 100%. That is, every student who started, succeeded. Or, to look at it another way, thousands and thousands of undeserving students were given NVQs. I have taught, assessed and verified NVQs, and I have never met one person who has taught them who thought they were a success.
The government and the Construction Industry Training Board have partly owned up to the disaster and have tried to introduce some rigour into the qualification, but I fear the outlook is not good – a subject to which I will return.
The most painfully obvious change for me was the decline in the quality of my students. I suspect that this is partly explained by the well intentioned policy of opening up education during the past 20 years. School leavers who would have been natural candidates for the construction crafts are now taking higher national certificates, and the former HNC students are taking honours degrees. What this means is that the people now coming into crafts would, 20 years ago, have swept up in factories.
I can attest to the poor quality of crafts students. The experience of spending three-hours lessons trying to teach carpentry to 16 of them – most of whom didn't show, or did so two hours late, and none of whom had the tiniest interest in construction – was my definition of hell. My idea of success was to stop, temporarily, my class making mobile phone calls during lectures. It is nearly impossible to get rid of a student (sorry, funding unit) no matter how aggressive, uninterested or disruptive they are.
This situation looks likely to become even worse. The government has plans to allow disaffected pupils to leave school at 14 and to move into colleges. Many of these students will end up in construction. Why disaffected students should suddenly change when they get a chisel in their hands is beyond me. I am sure they need a second chance, but why don't they consider medicine or the law?
Why disaffected students should suddenly change when they get a chisel in their hands is beyond me. I am sure they need a second chance, but why don’t they consider medicine or the legal profession?
At the same time as the quality of students is falling, colleges have taken steps to ensure that the calibre of teachers does the same. After national pay scales were scrapped, many construction crafts lecturers were downgraded to "instructors, trainers or lecturer B". This involved the loss of up to £7000 a year. I fail to understand why craft lecturers should be thought of as being on a lower plane than sociology lecturers, but I do know that the result has been that many teachers have left to make more money in industry.
I now return to that qualification introduced by the CITB over the past two years: the intermediate construction award. This is for students who are not employed on site and can only gain experience in colleges or in training. But such changes have not been funded at any level by the CITB, colleges, industry or the government. Furthermore, they are based on the NVQ model – and all that entails.
As for the good old NVQs, they will now be available only to people who can show they have "real" experience on site. The CITB has created a system to validate this – work-based recorders that keep track of the type, amount and quality of work carried out by trainees on sites. These are then marked by an assessor and checked by an external verifier.
Some colleges have implemented this system after a fashion. But others have not been able to find a single firm willing to create work-based recorders – most have no aspiration to become record keepers for the CITB and larger firms consider the training levy quite enough.
Much of the blame for the state of training in the industry must be laid at the door of the body that has presided over the decline of craft training: the CITB. In my experience, it has operated by keeping the industry and the colleges apart and playing off one against the other. I have often been told that suggestions I have put forward could not be implemented because the industry would not accept them – and I imagine the industry has been told something similar. In my view, the CITB has never been anything other than a drain on construction.
Finally, you may be interested in my parting advice for the industry. Here are three simple steps to improving construction's skills base:
- Close down the CITB.
- Create a trade certificate to replace the NVQ; how about the City and Guilds Craft Certificate?
- Convince the industry that training must be paid for and that it is everybody's concern.
John Smith is a former lecturer in construction crafts.