The study visit to Coventry

On 19-21 June 2012, the study visit to Coventry provided the NQF team with much valuable information about how the English and Northern Irish qualifications register was developed, as well as about the institution that manages it – OFQUAL. OFQUAL is the abbreviation for the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, which can also be understood as the “Office for Qualifications and Examinations”.

OFQUAL functions independently of government and reports directly to the English Parliament. It is responsible for upholding standards of qualifications  quality assurance and providing information on qualifications and examinations. As was mentioned in earlier reports, OFQUAL works together with the Department for Education and Skills in Wales (DfES) and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment in the area of vocational qualifications.

OFQUAL is also responsible for the formal recognition (accreditation) of institutions and organisations that are providers of qualifications, which is the same as recognising the diplomas and certificates of given institutions. The criteria for this recognition are defined in a law known as "The Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009".

The following representatives of OFQUAL participated in the meeting with the Polish delegation:  Nikki Greenway (Head of Information Technology and Information Management), Catherine Adler (Accreditation Manager) and Don Maclellan (IT Project Manager). The Polish experts primarily asked questions about the procedure of entering qualifications into the database and the amount of data collected for this purpose.

Work in progress: the initial scheme of an English qualification. Photo: Anna Piotrowska 

The existing register of qualifications in England and Northern Ireland is based on two earlier IT systems that collected data on diplomas or certificates. Currently, the register lists 25,000 qualifications, of which 10,000 are active. Since this is a succeeding version of the system, the descriptions of the qualifications are quite complex, resulting from efforts to preserve concordance between the data currently being collected and the information in pre-existing databases.

Each qualification in the register is described by a specific code that contains only information about its serial number. From the qualification code, you can find out which version of the system the qualification was registered in (100, 200, 300 – the oldest system, the former system and the current system respectively). The code includes yet another hidden serial number and control digit.

The differences between the Polish and English educational and vocational systems are so extensive that it is difficult to discuss analogies in the construction of the qualifications systems in both countries.

The main differences can be summarised in the following points:
  • Only accredited institutions (accreditation is provided by OFQUAL) are entitled to submit qualifications in England, while in Poland, this can be done by any institution.
  • Qualifications in England are described by “units”, which do not exist in the Polish system.
  • Qualifications in England have a defined volume and the levels of the English qualifications framework include sub-levels.
This situation has serious consequences. The scope of data collected by OFQUAL is enormous, which resulted in the large growth of the register. This also is the reason for the complicated procedures associated with collecting the information included later in the database.

In addition, specific provisions related to "registered" data differ from those adopted by Poland’s NQF project: in England, no separate description exists of the learning outcomes for qualifications. However, each English diploma or certificate contains a great amount of additional detailed information.

The famous Coventry cathedral was destroyed during World War II by the German Luftwaffe. Photo: Anna Piotrowska

An interesting issue is how the databases containing diplomas or certificates are updated. Accredited institutions can independently change the descriptions of qualifications included in the register. The only elements they cannot update are the name, level and volume of the qualification. Any such change requires the de facto introduction of a new qualification to the database.

OFQUAL checks that these changes are entered correctly and ensures the proper assignment of a qualification to a level (it is noteworthy that the correct assignment of a qualification to a level is checked by making comparisons. A separate procedure is used with an entirely new qualification). Entries made by accredited institutions are moderated by OFQUAL staff.

Theoretically, the name of a qualification (which is government-owned) can include a brand name (such as “Microsoft systems engineer”), but such situations are avoided, because, for example, if another entity at a different company was accredited to provide such a qualification, a new qualification with a new name would have to be entered into the database. If a newly entered qualification is identical or very similar to an existing one, it is not entered as a new qualification, but attached to an old one with an additional institution listed that can award the qualification.

In England, support for the entire IT system is outsourced. However, promotion and internal / external communications are provided by a 9-member communications team, with two persons moderating the OFQUAL portal, three responding to questions related to the functioning of the register and the office. The remaining staff members prepare press materials, official reports and documents (mainly in electronic versions – paper copies are being phased out). In the future, OFQUAL’s communications department will also be responsible for popularising the qualifications frameworks at various educational events and trade fairs related to the labour market.

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