It is an institutional truth that National Vocational Qualifications have been a success: because so much money has been spent on them, and because so many jobs and careers are based on them, then it stands to reason that they're a good thing. In fact, they have been a national disaster, especially so for the building crafts. Apart from anything else, the structure of the qualification is so complex that neither the students nor the people who administer it fully understand how it is supposed to work. And the system has no intellectual rigour at any level.
As a former external verifier for 25 colleges, I know the limits of the system. I've taught the NVQ for more than 10 years, I've talked with other lecturers from all over the country, and I've met few people who did not actively hate it.
Most people still do not realise that further education colleges are no longer part of their local authority. Since 1992, they have been independent corporations that must make a profit or go under. The early 1990s were further education's scoundrel time. College principals doubled their wages over a four-year period, then retired on inflated pensions, leaving their charges staggering under bloated management structures and tottering piles of debt.
The decision to make colleges independent was based on good, sound neoliberal theory: if you withheld money from underperforming colleges and gave it to those showing educational enterprise, the pupil would be the ultimate beneficiary. This was wishful thinking. In reality, colleges' finances were based entirely on the number of people to whom they gave qualifications. Lecturers were therefore pressured to pass everybody, and I mean everybody. It didn't matter if the candidate thought a housing joint was something you smoked at home: he passed – and the useless colleges were just as good at handing out NVQs as the good ones. (Just tick the damn boxes, Smith!)
The problem was compounded by the Labour government's determination to get half of school leavers into education, partly by debauching the A level. This massive expansion in university education has pushed the educational system out of kilter with the jobs available in the economy. The carpentry apprentices of yesteryear are now studying to be a human resources middle managers, and the schools are replacing them with the pupils from the bottom sets. I once had a teacher tell me that his school had tried everything it could think of with one particularly stroppy student, and as a last resort had sent him to college on a carpentry course, where he was welcomed with open arms and a ching on the cash register. And if the school hadn't sent him, the employment service would. A few years ago, it decided to force anyone who it thought had been on the jobseeker's allowance for too long on to construction crafts courses. Training for building was seen as a form of punishment for the hebephrenic, the sociopathic, the emotionally damaged and the terminally inept.
Those who had been the dole too long were forced on to a college construction course. It was seen as a form of punishment
In case you haven't been keeping score, I have now been joined in the dock by two governments, two generations of college principals, the secondary education system in English and Wales and the employment service. I would now like to add the body that has been responsible for NVQs over the past 25 years: the Construction Industry Training Board.
I've dealt with the CITB for 20 years, and I cannot help but feel that it is not responsive to the industry or to educational organisations. The people who designed and built the NVQ seem to have little idea how it is run in practice. Training in the crafts has become an exercise in box ticking, and there is everywhere an ingrained culture of fiddling. Somebody must remark in passing that the emperor is stark bollock naked.
John Smith is a clerk of works