Qualification Development: How Do You Develop a Qualification?

In a previous article we talked about what an awarding organisation is and does, who it reports to and why they are important. In this article, you can read more about how the process of qualification development works.

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The role of an awarding organisation

Most people when they think of qualifications think of an “A” level, or a GCSE – these are the qualifications that almost everyone has taken at some time or another in their lives. But have you ever thought how these have come into being and who decides what should be included in a qualification? The role of an awarding organisation is to develop qualifications.

Did you know that there are currently about 20,000 qualifications on the Regulated Qualification Framework? But many of them do the same thing and test the same or very similar things in the same way. An interesting challenge for any awarding organisation is to create new and different qualifications, for example, in specialist fields, where nothing currently exists.

A wonderful example of this is something like the Crossfields Institute Level 3 Certificate in Community Orcharding – community orchards being something not many people know about, but they are growing in popularity and skilled people to develop and maintain them will be needed in the future. Also the challenge for all awarding organisations is to create qualifications, that feel meaningful, relevant and interesting and that will inspire students to want to learn more.

The qualification development process

The process of developing a qualification begins with an awarding organisation talking to schools, students, employers, the public, government – anyone really, to find out what is needed. This involves sitting down with these groups (“stakeholders”) and agreeing if a new qualification is needed, if so, how many students are likely to want to take the qualification in any given year and then what knowledge, abilities and skills the qualification should be instilling.

This is not a simple process. A qualification can be for hundreds of schools, or just one college or employer, it can be a large qualification that takes up to say 3 years to complete or just a small qualification that only lasts for one day – qualifications come in many shapes and sizes.

Did you know that there are qualifications on the national register for almost anything you can think of – they range from an Entry Level Award in Speaking and Listening in Russian to a Level 5 Certificate in Equine Facilitated Human Development. If you’re interested to take a look the full register of national qualifications is here.

Having agreed that a qualification is necessary and desirable the next step is to work together with a group of mandated staff and stakeholders and agree what should be covered and how the student’s progress and achievement should be measured or tested. Traditionally a lot of testing (or assessing) of students has been done by exam, but this is not popular with many students and many argue that this “high stakes testing” is just not the best way to find out what a student actually knows. Exams are also rarely designed to show what a student can do. A person’s future can rise or fall on the outcome of one day – and that is very stressful.

Qualification development in a changing world

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The world is changing and many people these days are more concerned with knowing that the student can actually demonstrate what they have learned, rather than simply writing about it in a test. So some awarding organisations and qualifications are slowly evolving to make their qualifications more integrated, and about practice as much as theory.

Also, with the advent of the internet and information being so readily available, the need for students to just know lots of information is less than it was say 30 years ago. Good qualifications these days shouldn’t be just about facts, but about how you interpret them, what you think about what you have learned and how it relates to your life or work.

Qualification development is an intense process of making sure that the qualification is asking the right questions of the learner (student), in the right way, at the right time and that you can be confident of the result (this is known as “validity”).

Typically an awarding organisation will have a Qualification Development Team that will work with the stakeholders and ask questions like:

  • What exactly is the subject of the qualification?
  • What level should the qualification be? For example, level 2 (GCSE level) or level 5 (equivalent to second year of a degree).
  • Who are the learners who will be taking this qualification?
  • What experience or qualifications do they need before they start this new qualification?
  • What are they likely to do after they complete this qualification? For example, further study/ work.

Once you have a clear idea of who the learners are and what the qualification is aiming to do the next stage is to ask more detailed questions, such as:

  • What are the key things that the learner needs to know, understand and be able to do at the end of the qualification? (These are known as learning outcomes and are a very important part of any qualification.)
  • How are we going to confirm that the student understands what they have been taught?
  • What experience or qualifications do those teaching the students need?
  • What quality assurance processes and systems do we need to put in place so that we can be sure that the qualification can be relied upon?

All these are important to know in order to contextualise the qualification and ensure that it is relevant and valid. This is how employers or the public in general know that someone really can do what a qualification says they can.

After asking all these questions, slowly a qualification specification will emerge, examples of which can be found on the register here. The specification is the key document which explains all about the qualification and includes information such as entry requirements, teaching that must be covered, how the learners will be assessed and gives guidance to teachers.

Assessing the learners

As mentioned earlier, often awarding organisations like to use exams for testing what a student has understood and learned. Another potential issue with exams is that if a learning outcome asks the student to, for example, “Demonstrate how to prune a tree” – this can’t easily be tested by writing about it, it is much better to check whether the student can do this by actually seeing them do it.

Because of this many awarding organisations have been moving towards the idea of measuring student achievement students in different ways using other ideas such as centre based assessment, where the student is assessed in the school/centre or college where they are more relaxed and may have more than one opportunity to show what they have learned, understood and are able to do.

If an awarding organisation is developing a qualification in this way it has to be done carefully and with very strict quality controls around it so that the evidence of student achievement can be relied upon. In this instance the role of the awarding organisation is to ensure rigorous quality assurance procedures around assessment and quality assurance before they agree to finally issue certificates to learners.

Why develop a qualification?

Qualifications are important because they confirm to a student, a future employer, a member of the public or whoever sees the certificate that this person has successfully studied and achieved something at a particular level. Usually the certificate has a front sheet with the name of the qualification and a transcript, which describes in detail that modules that have been covered, the level of study and length of time.

This is important because it allows (for example) a future employer to know what you are capable of. The transcript also shows exactly what a student knows about a subject and how to carry out particular tasks or processes. This is particularly important in some areas, for example, health and social care.

Sadly, these days there are many people who think that qualifications are irrelevant. This is a real shame because the challenge for all awarding organisations is to develop qualifications that are meaningful, relevant, apply to the real world, enhance the learners experience and also, of course, can be relied on. The point of an awarding organisation is that an independent organisation, separate from the student’s college or workplace, is confirming through a rigorous process what the learner has achieved.

This is very different from when a college, employer or training provider issues its own certificates. With an awarding organisation the level of independence and the “outside in” perspective gives a strong measure and assurance of the quality of the learning.

As you can see there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes with qualification development.

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