McQualifications: Would you like some perspective with that?

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McDonaldsThere was widespread derision when three private sector companies announced they had been granted the right to award their own nationally recognised qualifications, the majority centred on McDonalds. Matt Henkes discards the McJoke headlines and looks at the facts.

The dust has barely settled on the media outcry following the announcement that McDonalds was among three companies given the right to award their own, recognised qualifications. But while the irresistible "McQualification" headline raised many a cheap guffaw, it unhelpfully obscured the real issue.

Last year's Leitch Review highlighted the need to boost the skills of the UK workforce. After years of complaining that college and school-based qualifications held little relevance to the requirements of modern work, employers' in-house training can now be brought into line with the existing national qualification framework.

Nobody seemed particularly interested in the other companies which were recognised as awarding bodies: Flybe and Network Rail, despite the media usually having plenty to say about the train service alone. Instead, the connotations surrounding McDonalds as an awarding body proved just too tantalising to allow common sense to ruin a tasty headline.

"If the content isn't good enough then it won't be a portable qualification to help people progress in their lives."

Dan Taubman, University and College Union

Many news sources suggested that employees were to be awarded A-Levels and GCSEs in running a burger-bar, implying the qualifications would be treated exactly the same as these staple certificates in the eyes of higher education and other employers. However, few people of note were willing to come down firmly against the plans.

Dan Taubman, a senior official at the University and College Union, voiced a carefully measured note of professional anxiety. "We're concerned a McQualification won't be a more rounded qualification to help a young person leave a dead-end job," he cautioned. "It's not necessarily in an employer's interest to do that. If the content isn't good enough then it won't be a portable qualification to help people progress in their lives. There's a jungle of qualifications out there already and this could add to that confusion."

The same but different

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's (QCA) assertion that the credits earned through these qualifications, the same as A-Levels and GCSEs, doesn't mean in reality they will be the same. A vocational qualification, by its very nature, is fundamentally different from an academic qualification. Some would argue that from an industry point of view, vocational training is more valuable.

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development skills adviser John McGurk believes this assertion has merit. He feels vocational training enhances learners' chances of gaining practical understanding. "If you're learning about balance sheets in college or comprehensive school, you might understand them theoretically," he says. "But if you're doing a vocational course in running a food service operation or a retail franchise, you're looking at cash flows, balance sheets, inventory and stock ratios and all the issues inherent in running a real business."

Amid the furore of outrage and condemnation, the fact that recognised credentials are being made available to those who would otherwise not have the opportunity seems to have been lost. And it's not just school leavers who are set to benefit. In many cases, this training will be taken up by adults, effectively offering a second chance to widen their prospects.

The government has lent its backing to the announcement, with work secretary James Purnell asserting it wants to work with the best providers of jobs and training, whether they are from the private, public or voluntary sectors. "We should not be ideological about who provides the service, we should just work out who is best at providing it," he said.

"If you're doing a vocational course in running a food service operation or a retail franchise, you're looking at cash flows, balance sheets, inventory and stock ratios, and all the issues inherent in running a real business."

John McGurk, CIPD

It should be emphasised the recognition of McDonalds, Flybe and Network Rail as awarding bodies is part of a QCA pilot scheme, the results of which are to be reported to ministers at the end of March. Despite the rampant criticism, it seems that employers that spend a lot of time and money developing people into more employable workers are eager for the contribution they make to the country's skill levels to be recognised.

Another criticism aimed at the plan is that it will simply add a further crop of qualifications to an already overgrown jungle of current, nationally recognised training certificates at a similar level. Will they be generally accepted and gain parity in the existing qualifications landscape, or simply add to the background noise in an already busy channel?

Unfortunately, only time will tell. The courses themselves need to be a mixture of practical on the job learning with theoretical underpinnings from the subject. These need to be properly evaluated and people need to be seen to complete those qualifications and apply their new skills across industry.

Are they lovin’ it?

But how transferable will these qualifications really be? Will gaining a level three certificate from McDonalds increase your chances of successfully gaining a job in the financial services industry for example, or help you apply for a degree course at a prestigious university?

McGurk says this is the big unknown. Employers should recognise some training has taken place. Say a candidate has a level three qualification relating to retail management, though the employee will doubtlessly have to adapt to a different type of business model, the fundamental building blocks of business understanding should be evident by their qualification.

A lot will depend on how well the various courses are run and maintained. If they are properly designed, become properly portable and gain parity of esteem with other non-vocational qualifications because they have rigorous content, they could become a recognised and useful addition to the qualifications framework. The key is to ensure they are not seen as a soft option, otherwise employers could find the McQualification hard to swallow.

To read how we covered news that McDonalds and other companies were allowed to award their own qulaifications go to:

McQualifications get the green light

Is the McDegree next on the menu?

Kasmin Cooney of Righttrack also wrote an opinion piece on the news.

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