Thematic Networking Event: Shaping the Future of Lifelong Learning in the UK

Thematic Networking event overview: ‘Reflecting on the Achievements of Thematic Networking & Aligning with Policy for the Future’, 24 May 2011.

For those of you with an interest in UK and European lifelong learning policy and practice, I’ve compiled an overview of last Tuesday’s Thematic Networking Groups (TNGs) event in Birmingham.

First of all, a bit of background. Hosted by Ecorys, the TNGs seek to integrate the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP) into UK education and training at the planning level. They are made up of  stakeholders and policymakers at local and national level (the people responsible for setting the direction for the UK) and also senior managers at education and training provider organisations, including LLP project representatives (who are ultimately responsible for implementing policies through learning provision).

Unlike most events, which focus on one theme or issue, TNGs spread their tentacles across four distinct challenges for lifelong learning. They are:

TNG 1 (Transparency of qualifications and skills); TNG 2 (Continuous training of learning professionals); TNG 3 (Meeting training and skills needs); and TNG 4 (Working with under-represented groups).

TNG 1. ‘Transparency of qualifications & skills’ is all about making it easier for employers, training institutions and colleges to recognise work, education or training experience gained in other EU countries.

There is a lot of work underway at a European level to improve this process, and in the morning session the group focused on the main mechanism for recognising qualifications – the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), which is currently being rolled out (slowly but surely) across participating countries. The plan is simple: all qualifications are to be pegged against an internationally recognised framework so every employer, teacher, trainer and learner will immediately understand what a qualification or category of experience is ‘worth’.

As you might expect, given the number of countries involved, the process of implementing the EQF is not straightforward. James Churchill from the Association for Real Change briefed the other members on some of the barriers and solutions experienced during his project as it works to get a certificate referenced to the EQF.

According to James the main difficulty is that the EQF is dependent upon the development of the national frameworks in participating countries. Whilst the UK and Ireland, for example, have had national frameworks for many years, others, particularly newer Member States, need to first develop these before they can implement the EQF. This presents a difficulty for UK projects since in countries such as Romania there is nothing to match qualifications against.

James emphasised that it is a slow process and it is important to ‘make inroads where you can’. For example, a Leonardo Transfer of Innovation project, working to get a training package accredited in Italy will need to get the package recognised by one regional authority at a time, since the system is regionally managed. For the time being, a patient approach is needed, but this is likely to improve with time.

TNG 2. The ‘continuous training of learning professionals’ group explored how UK education and training providers can make use of European opportunities. One of the presenters, Peter Hodgson is President of EfVET (European Forum of Technical and Vocational Education and Training) and Corporate Director of Norton Radstock College, near Bath. He described how his college’s involvement in the Leonardo programme has broadened its organisational perspective and improved the continuous professional development (CPD) of its employees.

To support this process TNG 2 continued discussions regarding the pilot of a series of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) tools. The CPD tools inform the National Agencies’ strategy of enabling LLP projects to better demonstrate the outcomes of their European activities, and to enable participants to record their CPD hours easily.

A successful tool has already been produced for senior education and training professionals who are intending to embark on a Transversal Study Visit and further versions are planned for aspects of the Leonardo and Comenius programmes.

To give you an idea, the Transversal tool helps Study Visit participants to plan, record and evaluate their experience in order to exploit the opportunity to the full. Not only does the tool help the participant to organise and prioritise their time whilst on placement, it also gives them a record of their study visit which they can present to their employer as part of their review process.

For a copy of the Transversal Study Visits tool, please email the Study Visits team.

The group went through some of the findings of the recent evaluations of the LLP and discussed how recommendations should be incorporated into future planning.

TNG 3. The ‘meeting training and skills needs’ group explored issues around measuring impact, validation and accreditation of European Mobility – one of the key points on the current European VET policy agenda. A critical factor for consideration was the importance of establishing sound systems for validating trainees’ experiences whilst on European placements and improving already existing tools such as Europass.

Mark Graham from Grampus Heritage & Training presented examples of his organisations’ approach in this area and the group debated which aspects of the experience should be prioritised – for example should language skills be prioritised or is skills development more important? The consensus was that both are important factors but more could be done at a national level to boost the status of language learning.

The group discussed a need for better tools for measuring the impact of mobility projects on trainees, hosting organisations, sector and employability. Mick Carey from Careers Europe presented the Euro Apprenticeship project and emphasised the benefits of building and developing networks of competent bodies and intermediary organisations which provides expertise and support to learning mobility.

“Very interesting discussions. It was great to have a forum for discussion with other experienced promoters and Ecorys around the same table. It gives a sense of partnership and a shared purpose in a diverse programme.” TNG 3 member feedback.

TNG 4 explored the extent to which volunteering can help people with fewer opportunities to develop their education and training skills. Tamara Flanagan from Community Service Volunteers (CSV) presented examples of how her organisation is empowering those who have been supported by volunteers to volunteer themselves. She also discussed her involvement in preparations for the European Year of Volunteering 2011 and shared some CSV case studies about how UK volunteers had become involved.

This European perspective was balanced by input from the UK Health and Social Care Volunteering Fund (HSCVF). Ashfa Slater and Karen Hayer from the HSCVF attended with a representative of one of their UK projects, Fair Shares, Gloucestershire.

“The HSCVF is a relatively new, England based scheme, which is strategically focused on the Department of Health’s strategic objectives” explained Karen. “We wanted to share our perspective and also to understand, from the point of view of one of our projects, how UK volunteering organisations might benefit from European resources and activities  – including the European Year of Volunteering and the LLP.”

Laurence Hughes of Fair Shares presented an innovative approach to broadening the appeal of volunteering called ‘Time Banking’, which encourages people  to pledge small amounts of time (as little as one hour) to give to the community. Because the level of commitment required is low, and volunteers stand to benefit from reciprocal support (time ‘owed’), Time Banking makes volunteering attractive to people from all walks of life.

Karen Hayer (Department of Health's Voluntering Fund) with Laurence Hughes (Fair Shares, Gloucestershire)

Karen Hayer (Department of Health's Volunteering Fund) with Laurence Hughes (Fair Shares, Gloucestershire)

The group also explored opportunities for volunteers available under the LLP including Grundtvig Senior Volunteering Projects and Grundtvig Partnerships. Rowenna Hoy and Jessica Keller from Ecorys shared examples of inspiring projects in this area.

Did you know?

INCLUSION is a Europe-wide initiative aimed at making the Lifelong Learning Programme more representative of people with fewer opportunities. The project involves 14 European National Agencies and is led by Ecorys. The initiative was borne out of recommendations from TNG4. See the INCLUSION website.

The next steps…

The four groups are currently drafting briefing papers containing key recommendations for policy makers and key stakeholders. These short papers will reflect lessons and successes of our programmes in key areas linked to the TNGs, including topics and case studies selected by the four groups. The papers will be circulated at the end of 2011.

Please subscribe to the Transversal Study Visits mailing list to receive further information.

Further information:

If you would like to contribute to TNG discussions, you can do so as a virtual member. Virtual members receive bi-monthly up-dates on the work in the groups and have access to the results of discussions from the TNG conferences. To get involved, please email the group you are interested in: Transparency of qualifications & skills. Continuous training of learning professionals. Meeting training and skills needs. Working with underrepresented groups.

You can view a diary of all previous TNG events here.

View the photo album:

6 Comments on “Thematic Networking Event: Shaping the Future of Lifelong Learning in the UK”

  1. Ian Lynch says:

    It seems to me that the best method of getting the EQF better known is to get millions of certificates out there with EQF levels on them. (ECVET credit too when fully agreed). The INGOT LDV TOI project will have a start with several thousand certificates across Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, UK, Germany and possibly Spain by this September. Since they are accredited in the UK QCF they automatically reference to EQF levels and in large take up areas like IT for end users there are not too many national differences to worry about.

  2. Bonnie Dudley Edwards says:

    I agree that a good way of getting the EQF better known would be for certificates to start appearing with EQF levels on them – but that may be easier said than done, as the awarding bodies issuing the certificates would have to be bodies registered with appropriate endorsement authorities on the basis of quality assurance. Perhaps it’s too simple (and patriotic?) to put a UK level doubling as an EQF level on other Member States’ certificates without the step-by-step involvement of the VET systems of those Member States?

  3. Ian Lynch says:

    First, if it was easy it would probably have been done already :-) We don’t necessarily need to start with accreditation in every country. Eat the elephant a bite at a time. In our LDV TOI project we started with accreditation in the UK QCF (I set up an accredited Awarding Body to do it) but there was still demand in partner countries even though the certificates are only accredited in England, Wales and NI. We now have accreditation in one partner country and accreditation of assessors of the qualifications in another. (Good work Catalin and Katerina :-) ). Transnational ICT qualifications are not unusual so there is a tradition of them starting off and gaining popularity before being accredited, and some vendor qualifications never get accredited. The more established they become the more likely a country’s regulatory system is going to want to accredit them and we can devolve control from Cloud based management systems to any regional partner. Qualification structure has to fit the national model but that is the whole point of EQF/ECVET in providing a consistent broad structure. To an extent it is a chicken and egg but at least we have a strategy that has the potential to raise the profile of the EQF. I suspect that if it proves the EQF concept has value, demand will increase and so other Awarding Bodies and national systems will respond. At the moment it doesn’t seem too high on the agenda for many of the larger UK Awarding Bodies because they don’t see the business model. Strategies don’t always work, but some strategy is better than no strategy, and really this is relatively low cost, scalable and potentially self-sustaining beyond the initial grant funding.

    • Bonnie Dudley Edwards says:

      Thanks for explaining that, Ian; all the best for your project results.

      I see from a different standpoint the EQF question that we’ve been discussing, no doubt because I was a partner in the 2008 EQF (as opposed to TOI) project “To Validate Learning at Work (VALEW)”. In this project previously successful innovation was not being transferred but, rather, a way for EQF levels to be reliably arrived at within any Member State was being hammered out together by transnational partners. I worked with colleagues in Scotland and at Scienter in Bologna to construct a chapter, in a set of VALEW guidelines, entitled “Referencing to EQF and other existing Qualification/Competence Frameworks (national, regional, sectoral etc)”. Here is a quote from that chapter which I think may be relevant to both what you’ve said, Ian, and what I’ve said:

      “Given the…heterogeneous setting characterising qualification frameworks and prior-learning recognition across Europe, the VALEW Model proposes three different idealtypic hypotheses referring to a continuum from a well-known set of competences finding full correspondence within existing qualifications, to a highly unstructured set of learning outcomes emerging from working experiences and requiring adequate indicators able to support level-assessment.

      The first two hypotheses correspond to situations in which the competences acquired informally, and expressed in learning outcomes, match existing qualifications, defined job profiles and fully-developed reference frameworks, referring to both professional and/or institutional standards, either national or sectoral, and already levelled to the EQF. In this case, it is possible to use their descriptors and indicators to assign a level to observed and assessed learning outcomes.

      1. In the case in which the learning outcomes refer to competences clearly corresponding to existing qualifications within national qualifications systems, the latter provide for indicators and descriptors which help the assignment of levels both within these systems and, indirectly, to the EQF.
      2. In the case in which the set of competences under evaluation is more unstructured and does not find correspondence in any existing national qualifications system, it is possible to use the descriptors, indicators and levelling methodology provided by already-developed sectoral, European and international frameworks, e.g. the European e-Competence Framework.
      3. The third hypothesis refers instead to more unstructured learning outcomes as emerging from the learning experience that takes place at work. In this case…some reliable and shared indicators are needed to objectively assess learning against expected standards and attach it a level of proficiency on the basis of evidences provided…

      In the absence of immediate reference to existing qualifications and the related descriptors, the EQF descriptors offer a set of abstract parameters, expressed in terms of ranges, referring to autonomy level (from none to full) and to context complexity (from highly structured to non-structured working contexts), and for each of them specific indicators can be identified…

      In addition to this process of “operationalisation” of the EQF dimensions, reliable indicators can also be drawn from the common patrimony of prior-learning recognition, starting for instance from the lesson and methodology offered by the Bilan de Compétences.”

      • Ian Lynch says:

        Just to add that risk is an important consideration in the UK regulatory frameworks. Low risk qualifications are probably better candidates to help spread the EQF concept simply because from a practical point of view any uncertainties are less likely to have a damaging impact until procedures are embedded in accepted practice. As an awarding organisation, one of the interesting things is cross-national moderation because it helps establish a broader consensus on applying theoretical definitions to practical learning outcomes and assessment criteria. The internet has an important role and provides the opportunity to make CPD an integral part of an assessment for learning process that also results in summative qualifications. Much less expensive and in our view educationally improved when compared to previous practice.

  4. Helen Metcalfe says:

    You have both made some interesting points, which link to what was discussed during the TNG 1 workshop. During our discussions the group really emphasized the importance of raising awareness of the EQF and ECVET.

    The Event Report will include more detail on what was discussed in all of the workshops. This will be available soon.

    Ian, that’s a really good example of the positive work that Transfer of Innovation projects are doing on this theme. Please keep us informed about your project’s developments!

    You can find out more about Transfer of Innovation on the Leonardo website ( and follow the links.

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