Developing qualifications: how can we involve small businesses?

Anthony Haynes writes: At this week’s Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) national conference, a major theme was the role of employers as stakeholders in the development of vocational qualifications.

There was widespread agreement on the point that employers need to understand and value qualifications (more so than is currently the case).  Agreement was also widespread (though perhaps less universal) that to achieve this employers need to be involved more in the development process. This was one of the main arguments in the keynote speech from Tony Lau-Walker (Eastleigh College and UKCES).

But several questions remain. How can employers be engaged to do this? What kinds and what degree, of involvement is desirable?

Small businesses

In another keynote, John Mann of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) focused this debate on the role of small businesses. We have millions of small businesses in the UK. Collectively they form a major source of employment. But there are real barriers to engaging them in the development of qualifications.

Typically, small business owners are, for obvious reasons, focused on day-to-day operations — making sales, fulfilling sales, keeping accounts, meeting regulation requirements, and so on. Attending qualifications development meetings is always likely to come very low on the agenda — or, indeed, fail to get on the agenda at all.

Micro businesses

A caveat here. I sympathise strongly with Mann’s drawing attention to the barriers to small businesses engagement: but I wonder whether such engagement is made harder by the vocabulary generally used? ‘Small business’ is the policy-makers’ default term — but the term is often applied to businesses with scores or even hundreds of employees (particularly when rolled into the term ‘SME’, i.e. small and medium-sized business).

Such businesses may look small from the outside, especially when viewed from the commanding heights of Whitehall or the multinational corporate sector. Yet from the inside they feel very different from businesses that employ a handful of people. Yet the latter also constitute a major source of employment.

The danger is that simply aiming to involve ‘small businesses’ may still leave micro businesses out in the cold.

An unanswered question

So the question I took from the conference was: if the aim is to increase employers’ understanding of and trust in the qualifications system by involving them more in the development process, how can we overcome the barriers to small business engagement — and, still more, to micro businesses engagement?

Your suggestions would be welcome…

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