The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1992Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s NCVQ Speech – 23 January 1992

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech on education at the Cafe Royal on 23rd January 1992.


Prefatory Remarks

Mr Chairman, this is the second opportunity I have had to speak on educational matters here at the Cafe Royal. It’s a splendid location, and rather apt for your proceedings today. It has lots of levels. When I spoke last time I was at level 6 but now I find myself down at level 4. I hope this downwards progression doesn’t give the wrong signal to all those people working hard to move upwards through the NVQ levels.


Mr Chairman, many of you will know by now that I believe it is vital that we continue to raise standards in education and training. The reason for this is clear. It is because I believe that every young man and woman has talents, in-built talents, which we all want to see them develop to the full.

But there is another reason too: it is because I know – as all those of you in business know – that in this competitive world our country is involved in an unending struggle for markets. And in that struggle it is the businesses and services which offer quality that win.

Business success will increasingly rest on people at every level who are equipped with good training and good qualifications. Qualifications that carry esteem, are coherently structured and capable of being updated throughout working life.

For individuals, education and training are the gateways to opportunity and progress.

For employers, a well-educated, well-trained workforce is their lifeblood.

We live in a time of rapid and expanding technological change. No one should underestimate the scale of the challenges that we face. But nor should we underestimate our capacity to meet those challenges. We in Britain can develop the skills of our young people and of our workforce at least as effectively as any of our rivals. And we must.

Opportunity for All

Eight months ago, together with Michael Howard and Kenneth Clarke, I launched the Government’s White Paper Education and Training for the 21st Century. We had two overriding aims. To give much greater priority to the needs of the 16 to 19 year age group.

And at the same time to break down those artificial barriers which for too long had divided an academic education from a vocational one, and which treated those who followed the vocational route almost as second-class citizens.

The themes which run through that White Paper are at the very heart of this Government’s philosophy and of the society in which we believe. A society without barriers. In which opportunities are available for all. In which high standards are expected and become the norm. In which people – whatever their background and wherever they work – can make the very most of their abilities.

When I left school at 16, I was lucky. There were people to encourage me to work for qualifications. Not all young people are so lucky. I want to see us develop the framework that will give them the incentive and encouragement to get qualified – and encourage employers to help them on their way. Today more young people stay on at school, but there are still far too many 16 year-olds who bale out as soon as they can. And too many of those are never able to recapture the opportunities they have lost.

Parity of Esteem for Vocational Training

So as we prepare for the twenty-first century we must see that young people have the opportunity for further education, or training in job-related skills, to the very best of their capability. And if they are to have real choice, vocational education must become a high status route to follow.

Why? Because it is important if we are to encourage the right people to develop the right skills. In this country we have always failed to give status to the practical as compared with the academic and the professional careers. All that is changing. Must change. These old-fashioned prejudices and snobberies can have no place in the world of education and should have no place in our society.

Good vocational education is not inferior in status to good academic education. I hold vocational qualifications in trades, crafts and business in very high regard. The next generation must be able to decide between academic and vocational education and training without distinction or reserve – choosing a course of the kind that suits their own temperament and aptitude.

That is our objective. But if the vocational route is to have equal status we must offer a range of qualifications that is both wide – yet at the same time easily recognised, understood and esteemed. Anonymous qualifications are not valued.

It also means developing a system by which people’s acquisition of skills through life can be measured and recorded. We want to create a ladder of opportunity which encourages each and every young person to climb rung by rung – higher, in the end, than he or she may have thought possible at the start. We want to see learning and development treated as a life-long process.

Employers as well as students stand to gain from such a system. They need a comprehensive and coherent framework of qualifications. Standards set by industry, to meet the needs of industry.

It was Government that began this reform. But it is the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, in partnership with employers, that is turning Government vision into practical reality. I believe that we are now creating the most effective and flexible system of vocational qualifications in the world.

Mr Chairman, we set you and your Council a challenge in our White Paper last year: that the system of national vocational qualifications which you have been developing since 1987 should spread right across industry and be within the grasp of all. The aim, stated in the White Paper, was to cover 80 per cent of the work force by the end of 1992. There were some who said that it simply could not be done. But it will be done. And I warmly congratulate you on reaching the 50 per cent milestone which John Hillier announced this morning. That is tremendous progress. I am confident that by the end of this year you will have reached 80 per cent coverage.

And the purpose of this Conference is to make sure that the new system is used to full effect. Everyone here is aware that the skills of our people are the most valuable national asset of all.

Of course, in one respect the future for today’s young people will differ from everything known before. Never again will a qualification once earned be sufficient for a lifetime. Training, re-training, updating will become increasingly necessary. In nearly all aspects of endeavour life-long learning will be needed.

Quality and Choice in School

The foundations for that must be laid in school. Our programme of reform in education, carried further in the Citizen’s Charter, will ensure that all schools concentrate on getting the basic things right. Step by step, Ken Clarke has been applying this principle to all age-groups in schools. From next September all pupils aged 14 will be following the National Curriculum course in English, maths and science. We will have clear national standards for the teaching of this key age-group on the threshold of decisions about their future education and working lives.

But we are broadening as well as deepening the National Curriculum. Since 1990, all our 11 year-olds have been studying Technology, starting out for example on electronics, computer-aided design or working with metal and textiles. From 1993, technology will be extended to the curriculum for 14 year-olds – and will lead to GCSE or vocational qualifications.

And we intend to enhance choice by developing a new breed of schools which will specialise in technology. The idea builds directly on our experience with City Technology Colleges. CTCs have become beacons of excellence in this field. We want to light more such beacons around the country.

We are therefore committing 25 million to provide capital funding for a number of existing schools, which want to enhance their technology equipment and facilities. These will be chosen from amongst schools with a clear commitment to technology teaching. This initiative, I am happy to say, has attracted support from a number of industrial companies.

The successful voluntary aided schools have already been announced. But I am particularly pleased today to be able to announce that 18 grant-maintained schools have now been chosen for the coming year.

Good grounding is essential. But it is not good enough, if education stops at 16. By 1990, 60 per cent of 16 year-olds in England chose to stay on in full-time education and training. That is a sea-change from 1980 when it was only 40 per cent. And in 1990 no less than 90 per cent were doing some kind of education or training at least part-time. That was an investment in their future – in Britain’s future.

As more young people stay on, one of the difficult decisions they face is how best to develop their skills. The choice of one route or the other is rarely clear cut. It’s hard to decide at 16 whether to study for higher education or to train for a job. Options need to be kept open. That was why we announced in the White Paper that we would develop a new system of more general vocational qualifications.

New General NVQs

These new vocational qualifications are designed mainly for young people still in full-time education. They are designed to be worked for in school or college rather than on the job.

I can tell you today that we will be introducing the first General National Vocational Qualifications from September in a number of further education colleges and schools. Initially they will be at Level 3. They will be distinct from the existing NVQs, which are specific to a particular job or type of work. They will cover five broad areas – business and administration; manufacturing technology; health and social care; leisure and tourism; and art and design. And these new qualifications will be much more widely available from September 1993.

The new courses will be structured to appeal to young people across a range of abilities. They will not replace GCSE, or our highly-valued A-levels but will run alongside them, thus widening choice. But some very able students may prefer them to the academic approach of A levels. I am confident that they will also appeal to many employers as a prelude to specific on-the-job training.

But let me make it clear. This new qualification will not be an easy option. The aim is to offer young people the genuine choice between worthwhile, high-standard qualifications, along both the academic and the vocational paths. Qualifications of equal value – achieved at the end of courses of equal rigour. That way, they will attract equal esteem. Each offering the individual the opportunity to go as far as his or her own abilities allow. That was the vision in the White Paper. And – through NVQs and their new general equivalent in colleges and schools, that is what we are on target to deliver.

Advanced Diploma

We also announced in the White Paper our intention to introduce Diplomas to enhance the choice between an academic and a vocational education. There has been great interest in the idea of an Advanced Diploma which could be achieved either by those studying for A levels or by those who choose instead to study for NVQs. We intend to press forward now with the Advanced Diploma so that the first awards can be made in 1994.

After consultation, we have decided what the qualifications for an Advanced Diploma should be. On the one hand, three advanced GCE passes (of which two may be only at A/S level); or, on the other, an NVQ at level three.

On top of that, however, we shall also require a given level of attainment in English, mathematics and a modern foreign language from all those applying for a diploma -whether they have chosen the academic or vocational route. The evidence for this might come from GCSE, from A or A/S levels, or from within NVQ courses. Kenneth Clarke and Michael Howard will be consulting SEAC and NCVQ on the specific requirements.

Attainment in English, maths and a foreign language will be assisted by the revision of GCSE for which I called last July. Work on this is progressing well. The new courses will begin in September this year. There will be a wider range of papers, so that we can not only cater for weaker candidates but also stretch the most able. There will be a sharp reduction in the proportion of marks awarded for coursework, and a rigorous examination at the end of the course. And the new GCSE will be related to the clear standards laid down under the National Curriculum.

The National Record of Achievement

But I believe that it is not just formal qualifications that give the measure of the individual. Almost a year ago, Michael Howard launched the idea of a National Record of Achievement for young people. Such records would give them credit for their many informal achievements, which are not reflected in exams, diplomas or degrees – but which may be just as important to them – and to their employers, too. Voluntary work, for example. Excellence in sport. The enterprise shown by pupils in running a business at schools. Or the leadership of an employee who heads up a project team. These are individual records. They foster pride in past achievement and encourage future effort. In a few short months this idea has become a phenomenal success. Over 2 million record forms have so far been ordered – by many thousands of schools, and more than 600 firms.

I want to encourage this trend. But that is not really a job for government. So we are today inviting your Council, Mr Chairman, to take responsibility for its future development. I know you will work hard to spread the use of National Records of Achievement, so that they become a permanent and valued feature of the landscape of personal achievement.

Taken together, the extension of NVQs, the new general qualification, the Advanced Diploma, and the Record of Achievement are all substantial initiatives. But we intend to carry the underlying philosophy further and deeper into training through life.

Training and Enterprise Councils have given local employers a key place in establishing patterns of training that are suitable for their area. At the same time, our new pilot project with Training Credits will give young people the purchasing power to become investors in their own future. They will have the choice as to how they use this new opportunity.

And we have evolved other innovative ways of creating new incentives for people to invest in their own training and development. Career Development Loans, for example. And, from April this year, a new tax relief for the fees which individuals pay for training leading to NVQs.

These increasingly open and flexible approaches to learning are bringing better education and training within reach of all – even to those who once would have been prevented by work or domestic circumstances from pursuing them. Now qualifications that count can be gained by anyone who can demonstrate competence -whether it was gained under formal instruction or whilst doing a job.

The Role of Employers

It is right that employers should be involved in defining the standards of occupational competence. And I should like to add my personal thanks today to the thousands of employers who are actively engaged in that work.

I believe that so many employers are sharing this commitment because they recognise the benefits which the new qualifications can bring. Real tangible benefits, which some are already enjoying.

Being able to match people’s skills much more closely to the needs of their business.

Knowing exactly what additional training anyone needs in order to move to another job.

Choosing the most appropriate form of training.

Knowing that people have been trained systematically to clearly defined high standards.

Working through qualifications developed by and for the real world of employment. They are already in regular use in key sectors such as retailing, catering and construction. But the success of our reforms hinges on the wider use and understanding of the qualifications which we are developing.

The Skills Revolution

This Government has launched a Skills Revolution – a revolution that is gathering momentum year by year. And yet, in truth, to say that under-states what is happening. For it is really two revolutions which are happening together. A revolution among individuals, who are demanding and playing a much greater part in their own training and development. And a revolution among employers who are training their employees as never before. I have no doubt that employers must be in the lead in this skills That is why I have supported strongly the establishment and development of TECs. And why this Government will always resist a return to the old centralist policies of compulsory training levies and bureaucratic control that some still seek. Industry is proving its commitment to high quality training. And it is doing that, too, by the support that it is giving to this Council.

You, Mr Chairman, can be sure of this Government’s support in the work you still have ahead. For your council is developing a system which is raising our nation’s skill levels. You are developing a system of quality against which employers can assess the skills of their people and individuals can judge their success in developing their talents.

Wider choice. Personal motivation. Employer leadership and commitment. That is the basis of our approach. It is the best path to personal fulfilment and to more competitive enterprise. It is the path that will lead to high standards in education and training. And to success for our country in matching – and outclassing – our trade competitors in the years ahead.

It is the right path. And I wish you well in developing it.