Is standards-based training and a unit standards-based credit system the most effective option for certification of learners in South Africa?
By: DR Denise Meyerson who can be contacted on
The NQF (National Qualifications Framework) assumes the following basic concepts and key success ingredients:
>> The awarding of nationally recognized and recorded credits to candidates is based on proof of competence within a real working environment.
>> From a quality assurance perspective candidates are required to compile a portfolio of evidence that accurately and precisely cross references to the evidence requirements stipulated in the unit standard.
>> The unit standards themselves are usable and directly linked not only to industry requirements as a whole, but to all businesses – even small and medium enterprises (SME’s).
>> An absolute insistence on consistency and standardization in terms of assessment and moderation as well as trained and highly experienced national verifiers.
There are, however, several factors that work strongly against the total fulfilment of these requirements.
These negative influences collude to the detriment of the successful implementation of a learning and development system that is based solely on the meeting of specific outcomes and ALL the assessment criteria of the unit standard.
The following areas of concern collaborate to undermine the possible effectiveness and value of the standards-based qualification route:
A. The portfolio of evidence
Candidates who have come through the formal education system are more familiar with theory-based exams and with writing assignments that might or might not be based on practical experience. Candidates are not used to compiling a detailed portfolio based on real-life practical implementation of the knowledge and theoretical component of the standard.
The portfolio requires evidence that is sufficient: a single piece of evidence such as a photo or only an observation checklist would not be enough to prove competence. This evidence also needs to be current, valid (it has to relate directly to the requirements of the standard) and has to be authentic (the candidate’s own work).
A well-constructed portfolio that contains all the required evidence is cross-referenced to the exact unit standard’s specific outcomes.
B. Workplace assessment
Although in the past trainers and line managers have been involved in measuring performance, formal workplace assessment for the purposes of obtaining NQF credits is new to this country.
It calls for a team of trained, qualified and registered assessors who have a list a mile long of personal competencies such as patience, empathy for the candidate, strong administrative skills, focus on quality and so on. The question of how much time needs to be set aside for one-on-one assessment can also not be ignored.
C. Quality assurance
Quality issues in a standards-based system are devolved to the site of assessment and many questions are raised with regard to the ability to maintain consistency across the sector. In other words, how can we be assured that the certificate awarded in Pofadder is at the same standard as the one received in Potchefstroom?
Add to this the skills levy rebates and tax incentives at stake and you have enormous opportunity for collusion, bribery and money changing hands.
The dream of the NQF that encompasses redress of past educational injustices, delivery of qualifications that are relevant, of high quality and transportable across fields of learning, is without question an ideal worth striving towards.
My question, however, remains: is the standards-based route the best way of achieving this goal? Are there perhaps other options available that are more practical, flexible and learner- and organisation-friendly?
We need to look at the changes currently underway in the UK with regard to a new option for qualifications known as "vocationally related qualifications" (VRQ’s).
These qualifications are linked to unit standards but have the following features:
>> They are unitised: in other words, "mini awards" or part qualifications are available without the need to complete the entire 120 credits.
>> They are more flexible: employers and candidates are able to re-structure and adjust the units to suit business requirements.
>> They contain some form of external assessment: a nationally set and moderated examination is included to ensure consistency and standardisation.
An example of the assessment requirements of a VRQ for a Team Leader qualification would be as follows:
>> A knowledge test set from a national bank of short answer questions.
>> A mini project that is related to workplace experience and demonstrates that change has taken place in the working environment as a result of skills and knowledge acquired.
>> A panel presentation or team briefing that is based on specific criteria to demonstrate communication and other critical skills.
>> A logbook or personal development record that tracks the candidates’ ability to learn and apply skills as well as constantly review progress, successes and obstacles overcome.
Bear in mind: it is far easier to assess and measure skills that are readily observed such as in a technical environment. It is far more challenging to assess personal competencies and the intangibles as reflected in higher level and management qualifications.
In the VRQ system the daunting portfolio of evidence is replaced by a more open and flexible assessment methodology that still meets quality assurance requirements but provides motivation to candidates in terms of personal growth and the possibility of earning NQF credits.
Added to this is the enormous advantage to companies of a modular approach that is adaptable to business needs.
2. Points for future debate
Do SETA’s and ETQA’s need to re-visit the concept of traditional standards-based training as a result of the UK experience?
Does a more flexible system of assessment seem more appropriate in the South African context?
Is a fully integrated education and training system still a viable option given the enormous challenges created by the pursuance of this approach?
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