I recently attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), held this year in Dublin, where I presented the findings of my research study on assessment in vocational qualifications. ECER was a fitting place to present this research, as its international focus (predominantly European) meant that I could have discussions with people who are involved in very different education systems. In addition, the conference had a specific set of sessions which were devoted to research in vocational education and training.
The study, which I had conducted with colleagues in the Research Division, was motivated, in particular, by two of the recent reforms to vocational qualifications related to 1) external assessment and 2) employer involvement. The Department for Education (DfE) now requires vocational qualifications (taken by 14-19 years olds) to contain a minimum amount of external assessment. What was clear from discussions I had at the conference was that external assessment means different things in different educational systems. In the English context, it specifically refers to a form of assessment that is marked and set externally (i.e., by the awarding organisation). In other words, all of the assessments cannot be marked or set by the institution that delivers the course (e.g., the school). The use of external versus internal (or school-based assessment) is still a divisive issue in many countries in both academic and vocational systems.
The DfE has also stated that awarding organisations must now involve employers in the delivery of the course and/or assessment. A large number of conference talks were focused on apprenticeship systems and education in the workplace, although in many countries, like here in England, vocational education is also, to a great extent, delivered by schools. Several people I spoke to expressed difficulty in engaging employers in education, which reflected sentiments at the London Conference on Employer Engagement in Education and Training in July and, to some extent, our own experience. Despite potential barriers, it is imperative to explore employers’ opinions on qualifications because they are key stakeholders. Their perceptions affect the value of these qualifications in the labour market.
Coming back to our study, we kept the format simple. To obtain some initial insights, we approached UK employers with a questionnaire. The employers were given a list of different types of assessment methods (e.g., essay, project), markers (e.g., teacher, employer) and people to set the task (e.g., teacher, employer). They were given a range of assessment criteria that stated what the student would be assessed on (e.g., “to describe the technologies required for e-commerce”) and were simply asked to select the best method, marker and setter for each one and state their reasons why. In general, the employers we surveyed chose a range of assessment methods, wanted markers to have occupational experience and had somewhat different preferences for markers and setters. They gave a diverse range of reasons for their choices; for example, they commented on the content of the learning outcomes, quality assurance, personal characteristics of the markers/setters, and student learning needs. There was no noticeable preference for external types of markers or setters. Instead, it was clear that the employers viewed a variety of assessments as having advantages that go beyond merely measuring performance and/or ability, such as being beneficial to the learning process and helping students develop transferable skills like writing and research.
Research Officer, Cambridge Assessment