To grade or not to grade

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 12 February 2014

Acting as a judge for the annual TJ Awards is always a pleasure. You are given an exposure to some excellent entries and cannot fail to be impressed by the professionalism and commitment of those who are presenting. Last year I reviewed the applications for the Best Apprenticeship category. The winner, the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, would serve as an excellent model for current best practice and linked both the business case and the need for community involvement.  Both judges felt it had the edge over the other five organisations interviewed. But, and here's the thing, not one of the six best practice entrants had introduced grading into their apprentice model.    

However, last October the Government produced its last word on the future of apprenticeships (until, of course, the next last word appears). This took the form of an implementation plan and contained the following uncompromising statement: 

all new Apprenticeships will be graded, with apprentices who successfully complete being awarded either a pass, merit or distinction. Grading will be applied to the full Apprenticeship standard. 

In my opinion trying to trace the vicissitudes of UK skills policy is akin to archeological research and the sudden prominence of grading offers the opportunity for a particularly attractive dig. So before we consider whether grading might be a good idea it is worth looking at its provenance.

The starting-point must be the Richard Review of apprenticeships, published in November 2012. You do not have to agree with everything the author, Doug Richard, said to recognise that his report was a thoughtful, comprehensive analysis of the issues facing the development of apprenticeships in the UK. His executive summary had nothing to say on grading. His main concern was that there should be a robust means of testing whether an apprentice has reached the desired level of competency: that an apprentice could take the knowledge and skill they have acquired and apply it in the workplace. Currently, in his opinion, assessment focuses too heavily on paper-based evidence. In his full report, Doug Richard pointed out that 'some argued that the assessment process should have a grading system' but he himself was equivocal and simply said that 'there are a number of delivering models for delivering assessment and Government should consider what will work best' .

The Government responded to the Richard Review in March 2013 with a consultation document containing a section on grading which began: 'We believe that there is a strong case to apply to apply grading to Apprenticeship qualification, to maximise their usefulness in the labour market and as an incentive to strive for excellence' .  

This March 2013 consultation included the following question: How should we implement grading for apprenticeship qualifications?

The response from subsequent extensive exercises was published in the October implementation plan in the following terms:

There were mixed views with a reasonable level of support from a number of respondents who thought that grading was possible, but with a larger number of respondents stating that grading did not work for competency-based qualifications.

If grading was to be introduced, respondents generally felt it should be kept simple using, for example, pass, merit or distinction rather than any more detailed breakdown.  

This is at best a negative response to a tendentious, leading question.

So the overall position could not be clearer. There is little or no head of steam for grading, though some pockets of support exist, but the intention is that we will have it whether we like it or not.  A leading academic commentator suggested to me that this is being driven by Michael Gove at Education who has a strong commitment to introduce more vigour into vocational qualifications, reflecting a personal ideology.  Any views that Vince Cable and the Department for Business and Innovation may or may not hold have been ignored. So also has the idea of 'employer ownership' of training that has been the central mantra of government policy to date.

Does any of this matter? My guess is it there is a fair chance that this proposal will collapse under its own weight and graded apprenticeships will only be a marginal part of total provision. However there are powerful arguments against grading apprenticeship programmes - they could act as a de-motivator for the individual and could fit uneasily with the remainder of our developmental programmes. Others may disagree but it is surely worth a sensible discussion rather than proceeding by imposition. This is shoddy practice by the department and it may be that the training community has taken its eye of the ball at a critical time.

About the author
Martyn Sloman is a visiting professor at Kingston Business School and a teaching fellow at Birkbeck College. He is principal consultant to TJ's L&D 2020 project and can be contacted at martynsloman@me.com

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