Learning curve

A grassroots reform of qualifications is under way, with the aim of achieving clearer, more employer-specific training. Fred A’Court reports

The next 18 months will be exciting and challenging times for those working in training and education.

The biggest reform of qualifications since the introduction of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs and SVQs) 20 years ago is now under way.

This is part of a longer-term government strategy to achieve a number of improvements by 2020, including: 95% of adults having basic literacy and numeracy skills; 90% achieving a Level 2 qualification and 1.9m a Level 3; 500,000 in apprenticeships; and more than 40% having a higher education certificate.

By the end of 2010, the current qualifications set-up will be replaced by a new framework that, it is claimed, will be easier to understand, more flexible and with updated, more relevant content, attuned to employers’ needs. The reform is being undertaken across the entire training and education network and not just in the food and drink sectors. At present, it is felt there is too much overlap and duplication among awarding bodies, so a huge tidy-up is also on the cards.

Derek Williams, development director for the food and drink sector skills council Improve, says: “For many years, employers have felt qualifications have been a maze and a lottery. There is a confusing array available and that has led to a lack of clarity on what they all mean. Many employers cannot work out what skills staff actually acquire through some qualifications; it’s not clear they deliver what it says on the can – in fact it’s quite mystifying.”

NVQs and VRQs will be gradually repackaged by the end of 2010, under a new family of Food and Drink Proficiency Qualifications with a common framework. People taking qualifications will be able to build up awards in smaller, more manageable sections than the present NVQ system.

Williams says: “An N/SVQ is a one-size-fits-all qualification. Typically, an average learner with no previous experience may take more than a year to achieve Level 2. Up to a third of those who start courses do not complete them. The new Proficiency Qualifications will comprise units that can gradually be accumulated into qualifications of differing sizes. NVQs only allow big movements up through levels, whereas the new system will allow smaller movements by obtaining credits along the same level. Credits accumulated will be transferable between different qualifications and awarding bodies.”

The first of the new-style Food and Drink Proficiency Qualifications is already in place. The Level 2 Award for Proficiency in Poultry Meat Inspection is for plant inspection assistants (PIAs). Previously unqualified PIAs will now have to obtain the new Award. By doing so, a person will acquire eight credits. He or she can then go on to acquire more credits at Level 2 to obtain the bigger Certificates or Diplomas, if required, to support development on-the-job. Or a Level 3 qualification may be chosen to better support progression.

Despite the recession, there has been no noticeable downturn in the number of people undertaking NVQs according to Angela Long, a director with Food and Drink Qualifications. This is because the cost of putting staff through an award assessment is currently free for employers, paid for under the government-backed Train to Gain scheme. Long says many companies are still unaware that funding is available. “We will help employers link with assessment centres that will look at their needs and apply for funding on the company’s behalf.” There is no limit on age or the number that employers can send to take assessments.

While some employers might be reluctant to release staff for training or assessments, Long reassures them: “In most cases employers will not have to release staff and they won’t have to come off the line. Assessors go in and assess students while they are working. It’s not like day-release.”

There are currently some 70 assessment centres in the UK. Last year these awarded 6,000 NVQs. Most centres simply administer the sitting of exams and assessments; not many actually provide training, so the problem of actually training enough butchers and meat workers still exists. Among centres that do offer training are Thomas Danby Leeds, Meat Ipswich and the relatively new training centre run at Ensors of Cinderford in conjunction with Hartpury College in Gloucestershire.

However, a renaissance in UK apprenticeships over the last few years could stall, if careers information and guidance is not overhauled, warns a major new report, Progression through Apprenticeships, published last month by the Skills Commission, an organisation that bridges Parliament and industry. The report states too few young people are taking up apprenticeships, due to inadequate careers advice and a lack of clear progression routes.

One of the major issues uncovered by the inquiry is that careers guidance professionals do not understand local skills shortages or employer demand for apprentices, and neither do teachers. Barry Sheerman MP, co-chair of the Skills Commission, says: “There needs to be a marked improvement in the quality of careers advice and guidance about apprenticeships. This would encourage more young people, of all academic abilities, to consider an apprenticeship, and help to achieve the government’s goal of one in five young people enrolled on an apprenticeship within the next decade.”

The Food and Drink Federation says the issue of careers advisors not understanding apprenticeships must be addressed. It says apprenticeships allow companies to gain valuable staff, with the talent to make a difference to the business and the apprentices’ confidence, ambition and sense of value.

The supermarkets also have apprenticeship and training schemes. Sainsbury’s in-store meat counter staff, for example, are graduates of the retailer’s Apprentice Butcher scheme, a 15-month programme that helps the group develop people to be team leaders and managers of the future. As well as on-the-job skills, apprentice butchers gain three qualifications: NVQ Level 2 in retail, key skills in English and maths, and a Retail Technical Certificate, giving a range of additional knowledge and skills, including health and safety and customer service. Apprentices are also taught specialist craft skills. The apprentice programme began in 2006 with 15 places. This year, the company will place more than 200 on the programme and the target is to have an apprentice in every main store by 2010, which will mean recruiting over 500 into the scheme.

Many companies do their own in-house training. Group training officer for ABP Richard Dilworth says the company undertakes all training in-house, because it can be tailored to both the company’s needs and the requirements of customers. Responsible for the training of some 3,800 staff at eight fresh meat plants, including seven abattoirs and five convenience food factories, he says: “We put a lot into training beyond the basics.”

Training procedures are filmed in plants and information is translated into eight languages. Working with Asda and with Reading Scientific Services, ABP is currently developing its own Quality Diploma for QA staff at its Doncaster plant. Dilworth says the recession is not having an impact on training levels. “The problem with training is not cost, it’s getting bums on seats.”

There has been a focus in recent years on training courses aimed at staff earmarked as potential future leaders. One such course, introduced in 2006 and now in the process of recruiting its second intake, is the Fellowship in Operations Management for the Meat Industry. Participants, who come from a variety of leading meat companies, take a series of part-time courses and fieldwork trips over 20 months. Professional coaches mentor each participant through a project at their company. The next course will run from June.

A wider view of the meat industry can also be gained through meat industry visits and lectures, organised by the Institute of Meat. Institute chairman John Richardson says its activity opens doors on the industry that might not otherwise be opened. Trips to Denmark, Poland and Ireland have been organised in recent years and the first of a series of regional visits around Britain is being organised for later this month (April) to the south west of England.

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