Recognition of Prior Learning

Action for change was instigated following the Report of the Review of Vocational Qualifications (5). A new system of national qualifications, incorporating national standards of occu1mtiorial competence is currently under development. The meaningful aspects of this new system are flexibility and progression – qualifications are obtainable on a modular or unit-basis, allowing for credit accumulation; national standards define the expectations of employers in terms of performance and consequently emphasise the importance of demonstration of competence. This allows for assessment as a course of action of generation and collection of evidence of competence.

As many adults have important work and life experience, and much of this experience could be valuable within employment, it seems reasonable to assume that the achievement of this experience could be formally recognised if individual adults were given the opportunity to demonstrate their acquired skills and knowledge by providing evidence of competence. In this way, adults would have access not only to assessment but (by the new unit-based credit accumulation scheme) to certification for their current competence – this could well act as a motivator for adults to return to study to complete a vocational qualification or to gain one at a higher level.

The implications of introducing such a system of recognition of prior learning were enormous but were those which were being addressed by other actions for change within the vocational education and training field. If individuals were able to acquire a qualification ‘one unit at a time’, they would also wish to acquire the remainder of that qualification in the same way. The delivery system must consequently cater for individualised needs and offer courses at a time and place and in a mode to suit individual need. Admissions procedures and class structures and timetables would need to change. Staff resources would need to be allocated to cope with individualised counselling and assessment. Staff would need to be trained in assessment of evidence of competence and in the use of the new competency-based standards.

In March 1987, the Training Agency conducted an exploratory study with the cooperation of the major UK awarding bodies and the NCVQ. The purpose of this study was to examine the possibility of taking forward work on the RPL. The final report (6) recommended that a national RPL project would be possible only if all interested bodies worked together to develop a shared and agreed approach.

In October 1987 the TA dry NCVQ launched a national feasibility study (7) to determine the feasibility of using evidence of achievement from past experience to recognise current competence.

Two two-year projects were undertaken, one in England/Wales and one in Scotland. These projects are now completed. Outcomes have provided a number of workable models for recruiting, advising and assessing RPL candidates and a valuable set of resource materials including an Open Learning package for operational staff. The institutions involved have had to work hard to create the infrastructure to sustain the RPL service, to ensure its integration with other national developments and to ease its further development.

Where next?

Early findings of the current UK RPL programme are encouraging. It appears that RPL can function effectively as an integral part of sets for adults, at the minimum within the limited vocational areas that have been explored. meaningful technical questions have been addressed including issues surrounding the validity, authenticity, money and sufficiency of evidence. Assessors have been trained in the assessment course of action and in the technicalities of assessing ‘different’ forms of evidence.

But this is really only the tip of the iceberg. We have however to establish an institutional form. We have however to examine the real costs of operation. The cost of developing and introducing RPL are high. The initial programme focused on only a few occupational areas – will RPL be possible in other occupational areas? Will the demographic change really consequence in a huge need for this service as an integral part of wider access to assessment? Will the required infrastructure be in place to ease a national implementation?

The introduction of new NVQs and of a credit accummulation system takes the UK trend firmly towards a framework in which individualised assessment becomes the norm; where assessment on need is obtainable by a national network of assessment centres. The role of colleges and training providers is changing rapidly as more flexibility is built into the framework for education and training.

National Economic Objectives

The TA’s role is to promote a competitive and efficient labour market conducive to the growth of employment and the reduction of unemployment. To meet this objective, two meaningful challenges must be addressed – the ‘skills-gap’ and imminent demographic change. Two questions are:

  1. How can we ensure that our education and training system produces people with the right skills at the right time?
  2. How can we make the most effective use of an experienced adult market and encourage adults to develop the new skills which are needed?

The first question must be addressed by those responsible for basic and vocational education and training. Current efforts to reform the educational system and provide a more flexible vocational training infrastructure and delivery system are attempting to provide an effective response.

RPL is of particular relevance to the second question. The UK delivery system has not traditionally provided sets for adults – a change of attitude is required when adults form a larger percentage of the student population. That change of attitude must rule to immense changes in the infrastructure with the emphasis being on an individualised approach. Changes must be made, not only to adjust to more flexibility within delivery of courses, but also to ease wider access to assessment. Adults are reluctant to repeat learning experiences and require recognition of existing skills. This requirement also seems sensible in terms of national objectives – would not a nation be making more effective use of its resources if it were able to make complete use of, and build upon the skills and knowledge which currently exist?


5. Report of the Review of Vocational Qualifications in England and Wales, by the Working Group. MSC/DES, HMSO. April 1986.

6. Report of Exploratory Study of APL. MSC. Occupatonal Standards Branch. Sheffield. April 1987.

7. Interim Report of TA/NC VQ’s. APL Project by Susan Simosko. 2nd draft. TA, Standards Methodology Unit. Sheffield. May 1989.

Shirley Fletcher FITD

©2011 Fletcher Europe

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