The value of Prior Learning Recognition to support a post-Covid economic recovery

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ColegauCymru Consultant Adrian Sheehan provides an overview of the many benefits of Recognition of Prior Learning but also the challenges it faces across the further education sector in Wales.

The 2020 publication of The College of the Future Report has brought into sharp focus the role further education colleges need to have in driving social mobility and delivering the skills our employers need as we navigate through a post-Pandemic world, and with a view to making a valuable contribution to the economic recovery of Wales.

This has become even more important with the current shake-out in the labour market with people losing their jobs because of the impact of Covid19 related closures. More people will be looking for employment and will need to train and retrain for new jobs. When applying for entry to courses, looking for a job or a promotion, having a qualification is seen by many organisations as a core requirement. Having formally qualified staff is also often a pre-requisite for firms submitting tenders for work.

Why is RPL needed?
Further education colleges have always been central to supporting and delivering education and training for adults. Many adults who want to learn or retrain already have a lot of knowledge, skills and experience. Sometimes, this is recognised with certificates but in many cases, it is not. The recognition may be unofficial, such as a certificate for in-house training or attending an event. Many adults have experience gained on-the-job but have never received any formal recognition. Having to study again or undergo a formal assessment in something individuals are already skilled at is often a barrier that discourages many from taking up further education and training. For some who left formal education at a young age, often there is reluctance to re-enter the education and training system. Giving them formal recognition for the skills they already have can be a motivating factor.

The benefits of RPL
Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is a well-established principle in the qualification systems of the UK. Forming part of the assessment strategies for National Vocational Qualifications when they were established in the 1980s, it is recognised in the assessment strategies of all formal vocational qualifications and is in the standard conditions for recognition of qualifications by Qualifications Wales. Benefits are many and varied, and include:

  • Improving confidence by recognising achievements and transferable skills to enable learners to plan their future and meet their personal goals. Helping learners to plan for new career, training and job opportunities by recognising learning already achieved.
  • Can be used to demonstrate learning that could be considered as comparable to standard entrance requirements for admission to a programme of study.
  • Gaining credit towards a qualification to shorten the normal period of study by providing evidence of knowledge, skills and understanding needed.
  • Widely used in higher education (HE), learners can transfer credits or carry units or modules certificated in one HE institution to a programme in a new institution. Flexibility extends to adults wishing to join programmes at colleges and universities being able to have formal entry qualifications waived if they can show they have sufficient skills to be able to meet the requirements of the programme they wish to enter.

What does RPL cover?
RPL is a catch-all term. It can cover processes including accreditation of prior experience, validation of non-formal and informal learning, and credit accumulation and transfer. On the face of it, it appears to be a process that is of real benefit, particularly to adult learners. It’s an element in the assessment strategies for vocational qualifications with all providers of formal qualifications required by awarding organisations to have a RPL policy in place. Despite this, in practice, outside of entry to some HE programmes, the use of RPL is limited.

Accreditation challenges
RPL for the purpose of formal accreditation is expensive. There are strict rules of evidence that must be met, and it is normally done on an individual basis. It requires a skilled assessor and a significant amount of time to work with the learner to identify and collect the evidence required for formal certification to be claimed. Very often the rules for funding will say that, as there is no teaching taking place, the element of funding that applies to that will not be available for a learner where RPL has been used. This ignores the real costs of the process and is an incentive for providers to encourage learners to enrol for the full course. “It’s easier to do the course” is often the attitude.

Encouraging the take-up of RPL by colleges and training providers
This is a wasted opportunity and a disincentive to many people who would benefit from acquiring qualifications. There are things that can be done to encourage the take up of RPL and its use by colleges and other training providers.

  • There should be pressure to review the funding of RPL so that the true costs are recognised.
  • There should also be more appreciation of the skills required for RPL.
  • A significant number of staff are likely to already have these skills. Anyone who has formal assessor qualifications should understand the concept of RPL. It may be an underdeveloped skill, which can be acknowledged and encouraged, ideally through CPD programmes.
  • Potential learners can identify their prior experience and make a start in identifying and collecting evidence before they come for a formal interview. The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) has an established RPL process in place with a useful webpage and toolkit which provides detailed guidance for staff and learners alike.

Support available
There are learners who have qualified with high level skills but have lost all their records. This may apply particularly to refugees who have had to leave everything behind. A skilled interviewer with an understanding of RPL could work with someone in this situation to give them a quality assured transcript which they could take to a prospective employer or admissions tutor. Developing this is currently a project with SCQF.

Providers of any non-formal learning should be encouraged to have the provision recognised so that learners can use this more effectively. The Credit and Qualifications Framework for Wales (CQFW) has provision for recognising Quality Assured Lifelong Learning. Awarding organisations such as Agored Cymru provide this service. Colleges can apply to also become credit-awarding organisations. Currently this is a very bureaucratic process and work needs to be done to make the recognition process more accessible to interested organisations. If learning can be properly recognised, it becomes much more useful in both education and employment.

There are numerous projects and practical examples of RPL that can be looked at for inspiration. ColegauCymru is currently investigating the use of RPL with refugees by further education colleges in Wales. There are many examples of RPL practice across Europe published by CEDEFOP. It is normally referred to as “the validation of non-formal and informal learning”.

The development of effective use of RPL has the potential to boost access to further education and training by adults. It is potential that should not be allowed to go to waste.

Further Information

The College of the Future For Wales
European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP)
Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework – Guide to RPL

Contact Us
If you have any questions or would like to discuss this process further, please contact Adrian Sheehan, the ColegauCymru primary contact for Recognised Prior Learning in further education colleges in Wales.

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