Skills Minister Nick Boles acknowledges ‘concerns’ that qualifications reform has gone too far

Skills Minister Nick Boles said he was prepared to investigate whether qualifications reform had “gone too far” as he addressed MPs for the first time in his new role today.

At a Westminster Hall debate on youth unemployment and Ofsted this morning, Mr Boles (pictured above in action) said he had heard “concerns” about the extent of reform carried out by the government and was willing to investigate.

Nigel Whitehead
Nigel Whitehead

His comments came after a series of public funding cuts to adult quals and also a review by BAE Systems group managing director and UK Commission for Employment and Skills commissioner Nigel Whitehead (pictured) which last year called for around 95 per cent of the vocational market’s 19,000-plus qualifications to be cut.

Mr Boles said: “I believe we were right to scrap, as I think honourable members on all sides the House have recognised, some of what my honourable friend referred to as the ‘GNVQ fiddle’ to some of the qualifications that purported to have the equipment to get people a job but did not. We were perpetrating a fraud and it was entirely right that we got rid of that fraud.

“But I have heard absolutely clearly the concern that maybe that reform has gone too far. I am not going to even for a moment suggest that I agree with it or not, but I absolutely promise to talk to members, to talk to the chairman of the select committee who I understand may have some similar concerns and to understand where that concern lies and how we can preserve the massive gains we have made, but nevertheless address the concerns they may have.”

He said he supported the work to rectify a “fundamental dishonesty” in the skills system inherited from the last government, but conceded that concerns existed.

He added: “My understanding is that when we came into office, this government, in 2010, we inherited a system in which there were brave intentions, but a fundamental dishonesty.

“The fundamental dishonesty lay in the fact that we said to many young people that if they studied a whole range of courses and collected a whole confetti of qualifications, that somehow they too would be able to share in the benefits of our growing economy. That was not true.

“It was not true in 2010 when the economy wasn’t growing, it wasn’t even true in 2007 and 2006 and 2005 when our economy had been growing for a very long period of time, and yet still there was a huge number of people who, for all of their GVNQs [sic] and qualifications were not able to fully share in the benefits of that economy.

“That is the key challenge we have tried to face, to face up to that fundamental dishonesty, and with the help of the fantastic Alison Wolf and others, to identify those core skills that it is essential that every young person must acquire if they are going to be able to have a chance to share in that economic prosperity.”

He said his “simple mission” when he was Planning Minister was to get more houses built, and added that he believed his mission in his new role was just as simple.

He said: “In this job, I feel I have an equally simple mission, and that is to ensure that every young person acquires the skills that they will need to share in our economic recovery.

“And we have made substantial progress, even when coming out of one of the deepest recessions for several generations, but we have not made enough progress, and we are not satisfied and we will not rest and the work will continue right up until election day and long after it to ensure that mission is fulfilled.”

Mr Boles praised the government’s work “to revive and restore and re-inspire the concept of an apprenticeship,” adding: “It was something that had become a low currency in our education and training system, and that, I am pleased to say, is no longer the case.

“We are on track to deliver two million apprentices over the course of this Parliament, and not just two million in number, but two million high quality, long term apprenticeships which people running businesses and other organisations value as real ways to get into work and into good long-term employment.”

According to figures from the current Statistical First Release, out last month and including provisional figures for 2013/14, the current total of apprenticeship starts from the beginning of 2010/11, after the current government was elected, stands at nearly 1.8m.

Business, Enterprise and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock

Mr Boles continued by acknowledging his own lack of sector knowledge and paid tribute to his predecessor, Matthew Hancock, adding that he was keen to learn more about FE and skills.

“One of the phrases, and there are many phrases and new jargons that a newly-appointed Minister has to get to grips with, and one we have heard a certain amount of this morning, one I don’t like any more than any other jargon, is work-readiness,” said Mr Boles.

“I have to say I feel peculiarly un-work-ready this morning, having had less than 24 hours to get my head around these issues.

“I nevertheless feel at some advantage because of the superb work of my predecessor, who I know earned the respect of colleagues around the House for his indefatigable energy, enthusiasm and drive.”

He added: “I am tremendously privileged and lucky and happy to be given this job. Like poor Manuel, I know nothing at the moment, but I am keen to learn.”

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. FELecturer

    Anyone who teaches on BTEC science and engineering courses will know that much more reform of the assessment system is required. Until we return to phase tests and end of year exams we will not be preparing technicians or future undergraduates to compete in the globally competitive businesses that need these young people.

    Students are not making the effort to learn properly because they just have to do assignments rather than exams. Our current BTEC students are completing with far less capability than they would have had if they had completed the exam style of assessments required 30 years ago. Many apprentices study these BTEC courses on a day release basis. BTEC engineering and science qualifications produce students who will not be able to match up to students in other countries.

    Students now gain an HNC or HND qualification without taking any exams – disgraceful.

    • shirtandtie

      There is nothing of course preventing you using sit-down phase tests for BTECs at L3 or L4.

      BUT curriculum managers don’t like this, because some students will fail.

      As one put it to me recently ‘every student passes this BTEC course, it wont get them a job because local employers know it just means they turned up for classes’.

      As I put it to him; ‘surely if a student has achieved an L3 qualification in engineering then they should be employable as an engineer?. He replied; ‘it doesn’t work that way’. And of course he’s right, because if it did, college success rates would look bad.

      There was a time when a college lecturers role was to train students for local industry and to act as a gatekeeper to ensure that only those who had the ability got the qualifications, and then got the jobs.

      Our role is now to maximise college income by ensuring maximum success rates. This is of course dressed up as acting in the students’ best interest; but how do you act in a student’s best interest by passing them for an engineering qualification when it has become so debased that they have no prospect of ever working as an engineer?

      Most often these are students that they have no ability, or potential ability, in this vocation, something usually evidenced at enrolment by a lack of decent grades at GCSE maths and science with the explanation from Mum/Dad ‘but he/she’s good with his/her hands’. Yet we are placed under pressure to enrol them, (despite pointing out that it’s not ability with ‘hands’ that count), since ‘no-one fails’.

      But we are failing them by giving them false expectations, given so as to keep our classes full, and curriculum managers happy.

  2. johnpster

    Funding and Inspection are the driving forces behind assignment based qualifications, and the penalties for failure are so severe that no teacher, assessor or lecturer dares to allow a student to fail. Unless the Inspection regime changes and the funding is less punitive we can’t move forward with qualification redesign.
    The Govt’s claim to have increased Apprenticeship numbers is not quite what it seems, numbers have risen mainly because of the withdrawal of Train to Gain (which was a good idea badly delivered). Many of today’s apprentices are over 25 years old, they are not new to their jobs, but their employers are, understandably, chasing the only funding that is available. Training providers equally chase the funding and the targets set by Govt. Whilst the Apprenticeship is still a good programme, it isn’t always the most appropriate or cost effective option.

    • If inspection were a driving force behind assignment based qualifications they would have to lead to related employment under the new common inspection framework. Inspection should also be looking at the quality of learning and assessment regardless of assessment methods. Any national variation in standards is down to awarding bodies and the quality of their external verifiers. It has never been easy to get consistency in that process as there is a reliance on trust and professional standards of those delivering qualifications. The main reason behind the recommendation by the Training Standards Council Apprenticeship Survey to introduce technical certificates into apprenticeship frameworks just over 10 years ago was because of the dilution of technical knowledge that was a result of the theoretical part of NVQs being taught to be passed rather than to bee understood. Those in the FE system are even seeing this with the actual abilities in English of students coming to them directly from schools with their English Language GCSE certificates showing grade C passes (hence the need to do a full diagnostic assessment, rather than accept what should be known if you relied on the certificate already achieved). So can you rely on the validity of the end examination, or is it also to do with the teaching methodology of ‘teaching to pass’ rather than to understand?

      • shirtandtie

        The problem with ‘unreliable’ Grade C’s is caused by the pressure on schools arising from league tables.

        A school’s position and local standing is dependent upon the results not of a whole year but by those students who are borderline C/D. Schools know this and go to great lengths to identify these students in particular, they are then given massive support to up-their-game and get C’s. Even in a large school these students may not be more that 20, – but it is these students that make a difference to the whole school results.

        The issue here is not the reliability/validity of the GCSE assessments; rather that the grade ‘C’ cohort contains a significant number of students that were pushed over the line, something which creates a difficulty for colleges recruiting into L3 qualifications, because the grade ‘C’ is now an unreliable discriminator of ability. Because of this, if I had my way, I would not admit a student onto an L3 engineering course without a ‘B’ in maths, but college managers will not permit this.

        This is a different situation from the problem of BTEC assessments which are of themselves inherently unreliable, and which are clearly being abused. The reliance on trust and professional standards spoken of in the previous post above is simply missing at the chalk face – because it is now inconsistent with keeping your job.