The competence and outcomes movement

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Post 14 Research Group



Inge Bates

School of Education

University of Leeds

In the last decade we have witnessed the advance of the competence movement across all spheres and levels of post-16 education and training, but its penetration is deepest in the technical, vocational and, to a lesser extent, scientific fields. It has gone furthest, in other words, in areas where education tapers into vocational preparation, whether at craft, technical or professional levels. Hence competence-based approaches are now being developed for occupations ranging from motor mechanic to medicine. Britain the ‘Trojan Horse’ for the competence movement has been the development of a system of National Vocational Qualifications and their sister qualification, General National Vocational Qualifications, henceforward referred to as the NVQ/GNVQ framework. As we shall see this framework, which is intended to span the entire range of qualifications including those at degree level, requires the development of competence-based pedagogy. Parallel trends are evident in New Zealand, Australia and the United States (Dawkins, 1989; Watson, 1991; Marks, 1994) and there are signs of emerging interest in Europe arising from the single market and need for transparency of information on qualifications (Twining, 1994). It is in Britain, however, where competence has become wedded to a national system of qualifications, that the movement has become most sharply defined, uniform in its manifestations and most deeply entrenched.
This paper reviews the development of the competence movement mainly in a British context, and the related literature. The overall argument of the paper is that the rate of development of the competence movement now outstrips our understanding of both its effectiveness and its social significance; more metaphorically, it has become a colossus, skating on rather thin ice. The relatively slender support from research raises the more interesting question, however, of what factors have promoted and sustain the movement? Further research on effectiveness and impact is now considerably overdue - but the larger issues concerning social influences on the emergence of competence formations and its broader social significance are also pressing.
An examination of the literature on ‘competence’ in recent years and its implications for education reveals that initially it was peculiarly insulated from critical academic scrutiny. The absence of academic attention was first noted by Burke, one of the more significant British academics working on competence, who noted as early as 1989 that ‘one might have surmised that Competency Based Learning would have assumed a prominent and important focus for research and debate in British universities. This is not the case’ (Burke, 1989b, p.3). More recently work by Jones and Moore (1993) raises the possibility that this silence in the academic literature may in part be seen as socially constructed. They suggest that the competence movement can be usefully understood as an example of a ‘pedagogic discourse’ (Bernstein, 1990), one of the very functions of which is to protect official forms of educational knowledge or policy from academic exploration through the creation of strong systems of ‘classification’, or strong boundaries, between the different spheres of knowledge production. This critique merits further development. It highlights, however, that - five years on from the paper in which Burke first aired this issue - there remained a dearth of critique and scholarship on the competence movement sufficient to cause researchers to explore this not only in terms of neglect but in terms of significant absence. It is, moreover, an absence which stands in marked contrast both to the strategic importance of competence to the current reconstruction of education and training and to the voluminosity of the accompanying official and promotional literature.
This discussion begins by tracing the growing importance of competence-based education and training (CBET) as an aspect of Government policy and its application to technical and vocational education. Particular attention is given to the breadth of possible meanings of the term competence, debates over this issue and the emergence of a dominant definition in the context of the British National Vocational Qualification system. Having established the contours of the movement, four broad categories of research are distinguished: a very substantial, technical literature arising from the development of CBET, particularly in the context of the NVQ/GNVQ system; evaluative studies designed to inform policy and practice for industrial and vocational training purposes; a wide swathe of literature which I shall loosely categorise under the heading ‘spirit of education’ studies; and finally, a relatively thin strand of sociological perspectives which begin to grapple with the broader significance of the competence movement. Thus the discussion progresses through drawing a widening circle of work on competence, moving from the technical and evaluative ‘interior’ of the movement, where its basic precepts are largely taken for granted, to broader psychological and sociological studies which begin to explore the validity and social significance of the underlying assumptions involved.
This categorisation, as any, has limitations. It is not exhaustive; the categories are not entirely discreet; there are salient sub-categories and themes some of which will be discussed. The object here in designating large categories, or even ‘schools’ of thought on competence, rooted in different disciplines and paradigms is to begin to develop a ‘big picture’ of research in this field commensurate with both the increasing influence of the movement and the scale of the potential research endeavour. The need for an aerial view is further underlined by the highly fragmentary state of current research and the resulting need to assemble disparate perspectives in order to prepare the ground for more productive study. In the final part of the paper I shall outline possible avenues for research.

The paucity of academic debate on competence is not immediately apparent from a literature search. For example, examination of the ERIC database and British Education Index generate several hundred references to English language material on competence produced in the last decade. A more intimate knowledge of the subject matter, however, suggests that this level and quality of coverage may pale into insignificance relative to the scale and rapidity of the current spread of competence-based approaches. We need first to examine these developments if we are to assess more accurately the extent to which the current research endeavour has an adequate purchase on the issues involved.
Central to understanding the competence movement in Britain in the last decade is an appreciation of the fact that competence is a central concept in the emerging system of National and General National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs and GNVQs). Consequently, the British literature on this subject is largely inseparable from the related literature on the development and implementation of these qualifications. It is important to recognise, however, that the NVQ/GNVQ framework organises the meaning of the term competence in very specific ways which, while having the advantage of establishing consistency of usage, results in a loss of richness and cultural diversity.
In a general sense the development of competence can be seen in terms of the shaping and development of human capacities in relation to everyday social purposes, or in other words as a very basic and unremarkable human practice. This is perhaps more apparent if we consider pre-modern societies where explicit connections between educational activities and social purposes were more likely to be in evidence than the more oblique and circuitous links which have characterised these relationships in modern societies. For example, Norberg Hodge’s account of education in the Ladakh community notes that:
For generation after generation Ladakhis grew up learning how to provide themselves with clothing and shelter; how to make shoes out of yak skin and robes from the wool of sheep; how to build houses of mud and stone. Education was location specific.

(Norberg Hodge, 1991, p. 111, emphasis added)

This presumably was the ultimately desirable and ‘natural’ approach to the cultivation of competence in everyday settings which Gilbert Jessup, father of the NVQ philosophy, (see Jessup, 1991) was striving. However, in modern societies - with the rise of more academic forms of education - the development of human abilities has become focussed on more abstract and generalised forms of knowledge. It is in this context the turn to competence formations appears strange and has encountered resistance. Hence considerable resources have been invested in bolstering its legitimacy.
The older broader meanings of the term competence have been noted by a number of writers whose work will be discussed more fully below. The debate is perhaps cast more widely by Jones and Moore (1995) who suggest that all social science is concerned with competence:
The use of the term ‘competence’ by the competency movement appears to imply that it is pre-eminently concerned with competence in a way that other approaches are not. However, Competence is in fact a general and fundamental concern of all behavioural and social sciences from ethnology, through linguistics and psychology to anthropology and sociology... Hence the competency movement and its distinctive approach should not be seen as representing a special interest in competence, but, rather, as just one of the many and varied ways in which the behavioural and social sciences have addressed it.

(Jones and Moore, 1995)

It is against the backdrop of competence-based education viewed as a universal and fundamental social and pedagogic practice that we need to examine recent developments. As will become apparent what is emerging is a dominant definition which has narrowed and reified the meaning of the term. A central question for historians of CBET will be to explain how this particular definition has come to prevail, the ways in which it has been contested and the circumstances which have weighed in its favour.
At present there is no published, original, historical research on the recent growth of the competence movement in Britain and this itself represents an important lacuna. This brief outline is based on official reports and Government White Papers which have marked stages in the development of CBET together with some secondary sources which deal with the development of CBET in Britain largely for purposes of contextualizing discussion of current developments. The latter are scattered across a wide variety of literature including the promotional literature and broader discussion papers (e.g. Tuxworth, 1989; Ashworth and Saxton, 1990; Hyland, 1991). Most writers trace CBET to models of teacher education which became popular in the United States in the 1960’s (Silver, 1988; Tuxworth, 1989; Ashworth and Saxton, 1990) and which originated from earlier versions of Performance Based Teacher Education (Tuxworth, 1989). In the United States - as in Britain - it came to prominence in the context of calls for greater accountability in education, fuelled by the heightened interest in human resources characteristic of the ‘Cold War’ period. Its genealogy can be traced backwards further to include the behavioural objectives movement in curriculum design (see e.g. Tyler, 1949; Bloom, 1956) and further still to the rise of Taylorism in management.
Research undertaken into American models suggests that the version now dominant in Britain is broadly similar. For example, Grant et al (1979) used the following definition of competence as a basis for their research into American developments:
Competence-based education tends to be a form of education that derives a curriculum from an analysis of prospective or actual role in modern society and that attempts to certify student progress on the basis of demonstrated performance in some or all aspects of that role. Theoretically, such demonstrations of competence are independent of time-served in formal educational settings.

(Grant, et al 1979, emphasis added)

The approach to CBET adopted in Britain by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) resonates closely with this model, incorporating all three of the key features highlighted in the above quotation: the derivation of the goals of training from the analysis of occupational roles; the translation of these goals into training ‘outputs’ in the form of performance criteria rather than the more traditional teaching parameters of training ‘inputs’ such as syllabi; and the freeing up of possibilities for individuals to progress at their own speed on the basis of readily available opportunities for performance assessment rather than coverage of course content. These practices - prior ‘functional analysis’ of occupations, the specification of what is to be learned in terms of performance criteria and self-paced learning have come to be regarded as the defining characteristics of CBET in Britain.
Precisely how CBET came to play such a dominant role in British vocational training policy is a question which historians of the movement will need to unravel. From the published literature various elements of a possible story can be assembled but there remain many missing pieces. CBET appears to have first entered official thinking in the context of the problems posed by the development of the Youth Training Scheme, created in 1981 partly in response to escalating youth unemployment. The publication of A New Training Initiative (DOE, 1981) which launched the scheme emphasised the importance of ‘standards of a new kind’ and throughout the 1980s the Manpower Services Commission’s Standards Programme appears to have been grappling with the problem of embedding national standards in youth training provision (Debling, 1989; Jessup, 1991). In reports and official papers of the 1980s the language of ‘outcomes’ and ‘competence’ was increasingly used, initially alongside more familiar educational terms such as objectives (Jonathon, 1987).
By the mid 1980s however, as the Government moved towards a complete overhaul of vocational education and training strategy, the term ‘competence’ became decidedly dominant. It was adopted, for example, in the most influential publication of this period, The Review of Vocational Qualifications (MSC/DES, 1986) and further endorsed in the White Paper which followed Working Together, Education and Training (DOE/DES, 1986). Together these papers laid the foundations for developing a new system of vocational qualifications related ‘more directly and clearly to competence required (and acquired) in work’ (DOE/DES, 1986). The NCVQ was then formally established in October 1986 to implement the remit set out in the White Paper which included responsibility to ‘identify and bring about the changes necessary to achieve the specification and implementation of standards of occupational competence to meet the needs of the full range of employment’ (emphasis added). With the setting up of NCVQ, Gilbert Jessup - who had played a key role in the development of the concept of competence within the Manpower Services Commission - now became Head of Research and Development in the new organisation. His prominent role throughout this period points to the need to take account of the role of key actors in this movement, as well as economic, political and social factors.
The NCVQ proceeded to establish a framework for all vocational qualifications based on 5 levels and set in motion a system of ‘kitemarking’ qualifications which satisfy NVQ criteria and ranking them on one of these levels. An essential criterion for recognition was that qualifications must be based on statements of competence. The derivation of competencies for particular occupations was made the responsibility of industry, operating through Industry Lead Bodies. Lead Bodies normally work with consultants with experience in analysing jobs for this purpose using a process described as ‘functional analysis’. As described by Paul Ellis of NCVQ the process involves ‘progressive disaggregation by occupational experts to break down the key purpose (of the industry) into smaller components’ and ultimately into performance criteria (Ellis, 1992, p.202). These performance criteria grouped in ‘elements of competence’ which, in turn, are grouped in ‘modules’ now form the basis of all qualifications recognised as NVQs, in contrast with the more typical content-based syllabi which traditionally defined the content of vocational education and training.
While NCVQ itself had no legal powers and could not force awarding bodies nor organisations involved in the provision of training to adopt competence-based approaches, it was acting in concert with other very significant players. It operated in tandem with the Standards Branch within what was originally the Manpower Services Commission where an extensive programme of work has supported the development of standards in industry. Youth Training was based on NVQs and the highly influential Confederation of British Industry report Towards a Skills Revolution formulated ‘world class targets’ in terms of NVQs to be achieved by specified dates (CBI, 1989). By the end of 1993 NVQs up to level 5 were in place covering about 80% of the workforce (Debling, 1994, p.10) and the development of competence-based qualifications for professional qualifications was well underway. Throughout the 1990s NVQs, joined in 1991 by their ‘sister’ qualification GNVQs, have continued to occupy a privileged position in successive Government White Papers (see for example DES, 1991, DOE, 1994). In the newer GNVQs the language of competence has been replaced by alternative terminology and there is a greater emphasis on the development of theoretical knowledge and understanding. Nevertheless, while the concept of competence is less prominent, the basic principle of defining curricular parameters primarily in terms of measures of pupil performance or learning outcomes has been retained. The 1994 White Paper Competitiveness, Helping Business To Win, endorsed new ‘National Targets for Education and Training’ again formulated in terms of NVQs or GNVQs. These targets state that 50% of young people should reach NVQ Level 3 (or its equivalent) by the year 2000, which would mean that 50% would have experienced induction into vocational education and training through competence-based approaches.
Moreover, the hand of NCVQ was strengthened not only by sustained official approbation but by Government’s legal powers. The Government’s intention to enforce all vocational training to be linked with NVQs and GNVQs was made explicit in an announcement in the White Paper of 1991, Education and Training for the 21st Century (DES, 1991, Vol. 1, Para. 3.10). This states that the Secretary of State will use reserve powers under the 1988 Education Reform Act as a means of ‘requiring colleges and schools to offer only NVQs (and thus only CBET) to students pursuing vocational options’.

From the perspective of education the competence movement has materialised in the form of NVQs and GNVQs and as a product of Government policy. In exploring the scale of the movement it is important to recognise however that competence is also integral to current cultural changes affecting the world of work. There is now, for example, a growing interest in competence as a means of human resource management (see, for example, Prahalad and Hamel, 1990; Lawler, 1994). A mark of the level of this interest was the launching in 1994 of a journal ‘Competency’, by Industrial Relations Services, which reviews competence related developments in industry. Many of the initiatives reported in this journal involve the analysis of the ‘competence’ requirements of specific firms. The interest employers have shown in competence frameworks (as distinct from NVQs), is also evidenced in a recent Institute for Manpower Services survey which reveals that employers ‘did not introduce competencies because everybody was doing it’ but as part of a clear strategy of business planning and assessment of internal skill requirements (Competency, Volume 1, No. 4, p.5).

Moreover, if we define the competence movement more broadly to include the increasing use of performance criteria to manage and measure organisational and individual performance, it is even more starkly evident that we are dealing with a highly pervasive and seemingly relentless social trend. This suggests that we may need to view the arrival of competence-based pedagogy as epiphenomenal, as a surfacing in education of deeper changes in structures and processes of social control over work, education and training and as a means of synchronising these historically separate spheres. Consequently, while we may observe some significant modifications in the paradigm and terminology, it seems likely that the pivotal position of competence formations in technical and vocational education will grow stronger rather than decline.
This skeletal account is intended to adumbrate the proportions of the phenomenon we are dealing with in order to better assess the current state of research. In essence the entire gamut of post-16 provision for technical and vocational education throughout work-based, further and higher education is in the process of reconstruction on the basis of competence-based approaches. Where the language of competence is not used, we nevertheless find models for defining both curricula and work performance in terms of the measurement of outcomes. The version of competence which is currently dominant derives from Department of Employment thinking and hinges upon tight pre-specification and subsequent measurement of the intended consequences of learning. This model of CBET removes the determination of what is to be learned from the orbit of influence of practising teachers and trainers who instead become ‘deliverers’ and ‘assessors’ of learning outcomes. In theory, it is the ultimate teacher-proof model. Furthermore, in contrast with many previous educational changes, for example the curriculum

movement associated with the Schools Council projects of the 1960s and 1970s, the move towards CBET does not depend upon voluntary participation and persuasion but on a high degree of compulsion. As presently constituted Government policy on National Vocational Qualifications means that education and training linked with all types and levels of occupation will be brought within this framework. This amounts to what in Bernstein’s terms could be regarded as a fundamental shift in the ‘education knowledge code’, the underlying principles which inform how a society ‘selects, classifies, distributes, transmits and evaluates educational knowledge’ (Bernstein, 1971). The remainder of this paper turns to the growing research base which is beginning to form around competence, identifying a variety of perspectives from which it has been examined.

In a previous paper (Bates, 1989) I have analysed the considerable scope for further development and re-interpretation of educational aims as broad policy is translated into more specific texts for purposes of operationalisation. It is partly because of the importance of this domain for the purposes of understanding the making of educational meanings that this review will include a brief tour of the technical literature on CBET, the volume of which also serves to provide further illustration of the scale and scope of the movement.

The pivotal role of CBET in relation to NVQs has resulted in extensive mapping and description of processes, principles, and issues involved. The seminal work here is Jessup’s book Outcomes: NVQs and The Emerging Model of - Education and Training (Jessup, 1991) which provides lucid and fairly comprehensive overview of the rationale and operation of NVQs and the role of ‘competence’. The book includes accounts of: the former ‘Manpower Service Commission’s Standards Programme’ which informed the early development of competence-based training; the principles of assessment; and the implications of competence-based approaches for employers, further and higher education and individuals. It concludes with a discussion of outstanding issues to be tackled for the further development of CBET. Central among these is the question of whether the NVQ competence model takes sufficient account of the role of knowledge and understanding in effective work performance. The discussion of these points foreshadows a continuing debate on the role of knowledge and its assessment in competence-based approaches with some commentators arguing (for example, Callender, 1992; Smithers, 1993) that the NVQ criteria under-represent the role of theoretical understanding in the development of competence. These critiques, together with NCVQ’s own ‘in-house’ evaluation studies have led to increasing attention to knowledge issues in the technical literature, (see, for example Competence and Assessment Briefing Note 9, 1993 and Briefing Note 10, 1994).

After the publication of Jessup’s book, the main vehicles for communication of the ongoing programme of development work associated with NVQs and GNVQs were two professional journals: The NVQ Monitor, published by NCVQ itself and Competence and Assessment published by the Employment Department. The former, as its title suggests, monitors and reviews current issues and initiatives arising from the development of National Vocational Qualifications and has included a regular update on new NVQs and GNVQs as they become accredited. Competence and Assessment is a broader, more discursive professional journal and includes small research reports and features on competence-related developments both in Britain and abroad. Further guidance on operationalizing NVQs is available from a wide range of handbooks written as guides to the maze of developments with which practitioners are increasingly confronted. Useful examples here are NVQs, Standards and Competence (Fletcher, 1991) which is a guide for employers and The NVQ and GNVQ - Assessor Handbook (Ollin and Tucker, 1994) which is written for teachers and trainers involved in the role change from teaching towards assessment.
A tier below the general guidance literature is the documentation detailing the requirements for specific NVQs and GNVQs. This again is a very substantial body of material, since each qualification (of which about a thousand are now accredited) may be represented by several hundred pages of text, detailing the units and performance criteria and evidence required. The amount of material is further inflated by the fact that each qualification may be marketed by several awarding bodies. While the requirements for any particular qualification must remain constant across awarding bodies, there are differences in style, presentation and guidance provided. There are no obvious precedents in the history of education and training in Britain for the production of such massive quantities of text detailing curricular specifications and consequently no obvious model of analysis. The nearest forms of text are curricular materials and syllabi for which forms of content analysis have been developed (e.g. Eraut, Goad and Smith, 1975; Anderson, 1981). However, such models would need substantial development in order to provide a framework to assist critical examination of the knowledge and skill specifications of the NVQ/GNVQ framework. So far little work of this type has been undertaken and has possibly been hampered by the absence of suitable models.
Moving deeper into the crucible of production of CBET we find the literature on ‘functional analysis’, which is the term used to describe the methods through which competencies are derived. This literature deserves more attention than it has so far attracted since the viability of the entire NVQ framework, in addition to competence-based qualifications which fall outside this framework, depend significantly on the suitability of such methods to their task. The development of the process of functional analysis - initially by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) later by the Training, Enterprise and Education Division (TEED) of the Employment Department - is detailed in a series of reports and articles (e.g. Mansfield and Matthews, 1985; Fennel, 1991; Mansfield, 1989a; Mitchell, 1989; Debling, 1989). These various papers contextualize and describe functional analysis as a process which involves gradually breaking down (‘progressive disaggregation’) the purpose (or ‘mission’) of an occupational area until all areas of competence and ultimately performance criteria, are specified. Responsibility for functional analysis for the purposes of NVQs lies with Lead Bodies but in practice the central role normally falls to consultants working in association with the Employment Department. Descriptions of functional analysis as applied to specific types of scientific and technical occupations are provided by Miller (1989), a consultant, who has described an example focused on zoo-keeping and Boreham (1990) who has examined the development of competencies for medicine and health care. Much fuller accounts are needed if we are to move towards a position where we can illuminate the socio-political dimensions involved in processes of selection and specification which lead to the construction of sets of competences.
The process of functional analysis has been undergoing constant refinement and further development and as one of its proponents once acknowledged it is not, as yet, ‘a highly developed method with well-developed rules and procedures’ (Matthews, 1989b, p.5). Chief among the problems identified by those involved in its development has been: the need for the process to take account of future as well as present occupational requirements (Jessup, 1991); the need for the range of competencies included to cover work roles in their broadest sense and not simply technical activities (Mansfield, 1989a); the problem of identifying and adequately representing the types of knowledge and understanding relevant to competence in the performance criteria (Wolf, 1989; Mitchell and Wolf, 1989); and the need to incorporate ethical statements in competence formations (Steadman et al, 1994). Given these surrounding difficulties the question arises as to whether such a crude and as yet unrefined methodology should constitute the key instrument for a national curriculum reform.
Standing at greater distance from the competence lobby, Marshall (1991) and Stuart and Hamlyn (1992) have argued that functional analysis reflects functionalist traditions in sociology and is consequently vulnerable to the various sociological critiques of functionalism. For example it reflects a unitary model of employer and employee interests and thus does not take into account the possibility of conflicting perspectives on work priorities. Barnett makes a similar point: ‘What counts as good practice in social work, the law, medicine and so on are contested goods .... the identification of the occupational standards is not something that can be settled, and competences read off in any absolute fashion’ (Barnett, 1994, p.73). Our own research suggests that contestation about the way to do a job is by no means limited to the professions, but is just as widespread and intense in skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled occupations.
These critiques and their implications for how jobs might be analysed merit further development. In fairness, however, to the authors of functional analysis, there are brief acknowledgements in the official literature that the process of developing competencies is indeed ‘partly political’ (Jessup, 1991, p. 43) and of ‘the need to involve those in employment as widely as possible in determining or endorsing the competence statements’ (Jessup, 1991, p. 45). Nevertheless, the exploration of social and political factors involved in the sifting and shaping of competence statements remains largely unaddressed. Returning to Bernstein (1971) we consequently have little access as yet to ways of understanding more precisely the interrelationships between the selections of knowledge involved in competencies and the ‘distribution of power and principles of social control’.

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