The Assessment of Vocational Education and Training Qualifications: a review of European policy and practiceResearch Report
In the last decade a significant body of literature was generated at the national policy level, much of which was informed by a desire for systemic reform and simplification in the vocational and higher education (HE) landscape. In England, recent developments include the Department of Education’s Review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England (2021), and the Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth White Paper (2021). Currently the Department is consulting on its Review of post-16 qualifications at level 2 and below. In Scotland the Stobart Report (OECD, 2021) reviewed upper-secondary education student assessment in Scotland in comparative perspective, whilst the Muir Report (2022) situated school education in its broadest context, aligning health and wellbeing with outcomes including vocational qualifications.
In Northern Ireland the recent policy landscape includes the Skills Strategy Northern Ireland: Assessment and Recommendations (2020) from the Department for the Economy (DfE) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which focused on creating a culture of lifelong learning and transforming workplaces to make better use of skills. The DfE’s Further Education Review will highlight the role of FE colleges in producing skilled workers for the economy, informed by DfE’s 10X Economic Vision and Skills Strategies. In Wales, Qualifications Wales is undertaking a series of sectoral reviews for vocational qualifications focussed on the skills required by employers. In Ireland, government Green papers have addressed the Assessment of Learners and Learning (2018), informed by the work of CEDEFOP1, and the Qualifications System (2020) which assessed the National Framework of Qualifications.
A review of academic and policy literature highlights a range of key areas of debate: the role of BTECs in widening access, the tension between widening access and educational attainment in HE, the relative equivalence of BTECs and A-Levels, barriers to recruitment and retention of BTEC students in HE, the role of, and challenges for, universities in facilitating the entry and retention of students, comparative student performance in HE, the tensions between vocational and academic qualification pathways, and employment outcomes. The current educational landscape in England reflects the recent introduction of T Levels alongside A Levels.
At assessment level the policy debate has addressed the relative (de) merits of the BTEC assessment system; advocates defending the ‘older style’ BTEC system in terms of the reliability of internal assessment, progression and employability; critics viewing BTECs as over-valued, in need of re-evaluation, and requiring external assessment to both counter grade inflation, and ensure equivalence with A levels. From 2017 the Department for Education has required external assessment for at least 40% of an Applied General qualification and at least 30% of a Tech Level qualification in order for results to be recognised in performance tables. Evidence suggests that some colleges have been reluctant to switch to the ‘newer style’ BTECs.
Two European ‘Vocational, Education and Training’ (VET) models are illustrative when assessing European comparators: the dual-track VET approach found in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark and the Basque Country; and the school-based model evident in the UK, Ireland and Finland. Dual VET systems combine two learning venues – the company and the vocational school – with stipulated time resources defined for each venue. The dual VET system aims to optimise opportunities to move between academic and vocational studies, and to facilitate the transition from VET to HE.