The 2012 Council Recommendation calls for Member States to put in place, by no later than 2018, arrangements to enable individuals to have their knowledge, skills and competences acquired via non-formal and informal learning validated, and to be able to obtain ’a full qualification, or, where applicable, part qualification on the basis of validated non-formal and informal learning experiences’. This is certainly a laudable and ambitious aim, and there are those who feel that the drive to formalise all types of learning may well lead to a narrower conception of learning.
Critics of this Recommendation can so far rest easy; the reality is that the validation of non-formal and informal learning (VNIL) remains fragmented across Europe, as the 2014 update of the European Inventory on Validation makes clear. This update, compiled in cooperation with the European Commission, closely reflects the European guidelines on validation. It includes 36 reports for 33 countries, eight in-depth thematic reports, two case studies and a synthesis report of main findings. Notably, it concludes that the demand for validation is growing in most countries (with the number of countries who have developed comprehensive national strategies increasing from 5 to 13 since 2010).
Whilst comprehensive strategies can enhance the clarity for users and accountability regarding progress, having a strategy in place does not necessarily mean that it is enacted. Nor that it will be fully implemented at local or provider level. Therefore, rather than becoming diverted into a debate about the value of comprehensive strategies and single legal frameworks, I have sought to highlight seven overarching challenges which need to be addressed whatever type of system individual Member States have in place:
- Data collection: Concerns about data was highlighted in both the 2010 and 2014 inventory. Data collected by various organisations are rarely aggregated and published, nor are they analysed at national level. This limits opportunities for evaluation and monitoring of validation activities. It also acts as a significant barrier in building an evidence base for future developments.
- Stakeholder involvement: Countries should clearly allocate responsibilities and involve all stakeholders at the appropriate stages. In this regard, the involvement of private organisations and the third sector is still a challenge. Buy-in from all parties– including potential users of the system – is important to ensure trust in the system, its processes and outcomes.
- Equivalence of standards: Evidence suggests those qualifications obtained through non-formal/informal means are not valued as equally as formal education programmes.
- Financial issues: There needs to be greater clarity about the amount of resources allocated for validation.
- Quality: Few countries have established quality codes or guidelines on validation. More research also needs to be carried out on whether quality assurance systems and procedures are able to ensure reliable, valid and credible assessments.
- Awareness of validation amongst key target groups: The public is not adequately aware of existence of a validation system, either because validation is very recent (i.e. IT, SK) or because of a lack of initiatives to inform the public (i.e. RO, HU). There is a key need to engage in outreach/awareness raising activities at EU and national level. Examples of good practice at EU level include the European Civil Society Platform on Lifelong Learning, OBSERVAL-Net, and ‘Building Learning Societies’ (which created a strategic guide for fostering participation and raising awareness). Furthermore, guidance services need to ensure that users are able to navigate the system.
- Further development of linkages between National Qualifications Frameworks (NQFs) and validation: NQFs can support validation by promoting learning outcomes and the use of equivalent standards (across formal/informal/non-formal settings). They can also make quality assurance arrangements much more visible. However, they must be embedded in a broader setting of policies and practises to succeed, with the required level of support at regional, local and practitioner level (i.e. information and guidance services). It is also important to remember that validation concerns not only qualifications, but also identification and documentation.
Aaron Rajania is a senior research consultant in Ecorys UK, with a specific focus on education and employment policy and research work. Specific research areas include teacher training systems, learning pathways, quality assurance frameworks, and skills development in a work setting. He has lived and worked in a number of countries in Europe including Belgium, Germany, Hungary and the UK.