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but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done 

In developing curricula, I had to bear in mind that vocational training was based on a system of what were termed National Vocational Qualifications. There were supposed to be 7 levels of these, and I was initially told that there were curricula for all these levels, but this turned out to be a myth, like much else in the Sector.

For Levels 1 and 2 there were hardly any syllabuses, though what were termed National Competency Standards did exist. At these levels they laid down general competencies, including with regard to English, but no curricula for these were available at the TVEC. I was told that in fact there had been no certification at this level, but then our Director of Administration, who had been saddled with the job of producing certificates (and did this most capably, though the task should not have been thrust on him in the first place) informed me that several of these had been issued for a course conducted by the National Youth Corps.

When I looked into the test paper on which the certificate was based, it had no connection with the Competency Standards that had been developed. Why and how the TVEC decided to award a certificate on the basis of that paper is still beyond me, but I rather suspect that the decision was not theirs.

Well before seeing what had actually happened to NVQ 1, we had decided that this should be a Foundation Course in Building Career Skills, with emphasis on English Communication. The Youth Corps, which seems now to have realized that its course and its exam paper (which had questions such as the name of the Grama Niladhari Division of the candidate) were not very helpful, has now adopted our curriculum, and finally sent some bright young teachers for training. But whether it will do the job properly remains to be seen, given that it has other dimensions to the course it conducts, and may not do justice to either the English or the Soft Skills component of our course.

Our course is based on five competencies, three of which are with regard to English. These are

  • Understanding and using simple expressions to communication, with examples of this such as introducing themselves and framing and responding to simple questions
  • Reading with understanding and writing effectively at appropriate levels with the ability for instance to form letters using basic punctuation correctly and to understand basic notices, instructions and information
  • Understanding the structure of English so as to use it effectively, with regard to some simple constructions

In addition we require students to

  • be introduced to cognitive skills required for effective work, such as identifying patterns and systems and thinking clearly and in sequence
  • develop the capacity to work effectively on their own and in harmony with others, with particular attention to qualities such as understanding routine and identifying their own routine and planning a group activity and allocating responsibilities


The full syllabus may be seen on www.tvec.gov.lk, along with curricula for the Level 2 Developing Career Skills course and the Level 4 Advancing Career Skills course. But we realized early on that we also needed much training, to ensure that the teachers concentrated on students learning and putting what they learnt into practice, rather than absorbing content and regurgitating it. An example of what we had to cope with arose when we were discussing supplementary English for a course for irrigation workers, and I was assured by the person who had formulated it that it did have an English component. So it did, but he himself had no idea what was meant by the Future Perfect Passive, which was amongst the gems of knowledge students on that course were supposed to absorb.

Grammar then we have made clear is not to be taught in isolation, with comprehensive knowledge of the tenses, eighteen of them, so dear to the hearts of many teachers in Sri Lanka. But we also needed to make sure that teachers did not dodge the puzzles introduced to develop thinking skills, or the projects which were supposed to make students practice planning and working together. Fortunately most of the teachers now in place are enthusiastic and energetic, and they seem to have enthused the students too, as we have found on our monitoring visits. Though I cannot visit regularly myself, we now have a bright young training programme manager, and he reports very positive reactions.

Modified versions of these courses are also now compulsory for courses in other subject, with Level 3 students in for instance plumbing being required to follow the basic elements of the Building Career Skills course. Obviously there are problems, for the students are at different capacity levels, but we have stressed that the priority should be building up confidence, and ensuring that they can, at Level 3, speak and respond in English at basic levels, and also write and read simple notes. The soft skills for work obviously need to be developed as best possible, but it seems that, if suitable tasks are assigned to groups, the youngsters can generally live up to expectations.

The decision of the Minister that all students should be given some English was fortunately endorsed by the Sector Councils, so we could proceed swiftly with making this a requirement. I suspect some traditionalists were not pleased, and in some centres the requirement has been ignored, so we are trying to make sure that there is at least some attention to this in all courses that began after July 2016. Obviously we cannot penalize students if they have not received any training, but we will have to omit mention of this module in the certificates of those who have not achieved even the very basic competency level that is required.

Conversely, though, many students are doing very well, and I am told they have asked for a separate NVQ Level 1 Certificate in Building Career Skills, in addition to their Level 3 Certificate in a particular subject. This cannot be acceded to, but we are trying to develop a system whereby they can apply for Career Skills certification on the basis of what is termed Recognition of Prior Learning.

This is a system designed to provide certification to those who have learned their skills through work, and it is obviously essential in the modern world, in particular for those seeking employment abroad. However we gathered that the system has been abused in the past, with mass certification at the behest of politicians. We have therefore laid down criteria involving evidence plus testing, with a new Director of Assessment who seems thoroughly professional in her approach. But whether we will be able to ensure that standards are maintained across the board remains to be seen. In Career Skills however it should not be difficult, for the external assessors we will appoint can check on portfolios and project reports, in addition to the written test. And there will also be longer interviews than we have prescribed for those applying for the certificate on the basis of centre based learning over the time required for the dedicated Career Skills course.

DTET began delivering the BCS course in January, to the joy of many of its teachers, who had been told a couple of years ago that they should stop English courses. I had been told of this decision by the then Secretary who claimed that English was not a vocation, and that a development plan prepared in 1992 or so, soon after the TVEC was set up, had asserted that languages were not subjects for vocational training. It was strange that this dogma was dragged up again so recently, since the DTET had also by now begun training in languages required for migrant labour. My suggestion that, if the dogma was unshakable, they do courses in English to facilitate the development of translators (of whom there is a woeful shortage in the country) was welcomed, but obviously not acted upon.

Fortunately some of the DTET Colleges ignored the directive and continued with one or two of the courses they had devised, so we were able to start the ball rolling quite quickly this year when the Career Skills courses that systematically develop English competence were set in place. Now though we have the problem of stopping the old courses, and ensuring that there is a clear path for upward progression based on the NVQ system for those seeking English proficiency as well as Career Skills. It is argued that those courses are now well established, and also that the highest of them, the National Certificate in Proficiency in English, is an entry qualification for the Higher National Diploma in English offered by the Colleges run by the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technical Education. The fact that the NCPE, which takes a year, duplicates some of the work on the HNDE, is ignored, given the lack of coherence in our system.

Ignored too is the very clear message of the Secretary to our Ministry that agencies under the Ministry should stop offering other qualifications and instead concentrate on the NVQ. This was prompted when the Minister got the Cabinet to formally adopt the position, which had been promulgated in the Sri Lanka Qualifications Framework produced by the University Grants Commission, that NVQ 3 was the equivalent of the Ordinary Level, and NVQ 4 the equivalent of the Advanced Level. When we saw this – a fact not given wide publicity, since the UGC is obviously more concerned with the higher levels of the SLQF – we realized that this might be one of the keys to upgrading the status of technical education. If it was recognized that an NVQ certificate was as acceptable for state employment as what was considered an academic qualification, the stigma now associated with the subjects we deal with would be reduced.

When I mentioned this at the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister to look into Vocational Training, one of his staff said that they did not want more applicants for government positions. That was understandable, but the answer to that was to refrain from creating positions and making appointments. Our point was that the training we provided should be on a par with what was thought more academic education – though in reality it is nothing of the sort.

Indeed the lack of what might be termed clear standards within the General Education system – which contributes to the sharp criticism of that system by the ILO – is the manner in which the Ordinary Level and the Advanced Level are characterized in the SLQF. In describing the Purpose and Scope of the various Qualifications under that Framework, they say simply that SLQF 1 is ‘Comparable to GCE (Ordinary Level) qualification’ and SLQF 2 ‘Comparable to GCE (Advanced Level) qualification’. There is no fleshing out of his as happens for SLQF 3 where ‘The purpose of this qualification is to produce a person with focused knowledge and skills in a particular field for the requirement of the labour market.’

Even worse is the neglect of these basic educational levels in the description of the ‘Attributes of Qualification Holders’. For SLQF 1 all we have I ‘Comparable to the holders of GCE (Ordinary Level) qualification’ and similarly for 2, ‘Comparable to the holders of GCE (Advanced Level) qualification’. For SLQF 3 though we have what might be described as specific learning outcomes, as follows – ‘The qualification holders:

 -Should have an understanding of theory, practice, relevant methodology and recent developments in a particular area of study.

– Should be able to apply the concepts and principles in the area of study and suggest solutions to problems in an employment context.

 – Should be able to communicate successfully, the results to specialist and non-specialist audiences and exercise personal responsibilities and leadership in some tasks in the workplace.

– Should be capable of carrying out further training and acquire new competencies which will help to enhance their capacity to bear responsibilities.

– Should display qualities and transferable skills as well as subject specific skills necessary for employment, carry out further training and manage their own learning.

Given such neglect of the outcomes of General Education, it is no wonder that we are in the mess the ILO succinctly describes.

Ceylon Today 16 Nov 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=9569