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Len Holmes

presented at `Innovations at the Crossroads' Conference, University College of North Wales, Bangor

5-7 January 1993



Over the past decade or so 'competence' and 'competency' have become essential terms in the vocabulary of vocationally-related education and training. The particular combination of influences that have led to the seemingly irresistible rise to prominence of the terms (and also the debates about them), might well be analysed in the context of the economic, political, administrative and, not least, the educational concerns of the 1980s. But it does now seem that these terms will continue to have a central place in discussions about vocational education and training policies and practices in the 1990s. Indeed, much emphasis has been placed on 'competence' in the heralding of the Single European Market. The competitiveness of British firms, and of the country, is now generally seen as critically dependent upon the competence of the British workforce, and thus upon the extent to which this is developed through education and training. Even in areas of education which is traditionally regarded as 'academic' rather than 'vocational', increased emphasis is being placed on 'personal competence', abilities which students are deemed to be able to transfer across the social domains of academia and post-graduation employment (eg Manpower Services Commission, 1987; RSA, 1988). It is therefore very important that the terms 'competence' and 'competency' are applied to concepts which are useful, and are not merely rhetorical (and possibly ideological) in nature.

I aim, in this paper, to cover three areas. First, I shall examine problems with the currently dominant view of competence, particularly as they arise from the tendency for proponents of competence-based approaches to adopt a positivist interpretation of 'competence'. Secondly, I shall put forward a way of subjecting the concept of 'competence' to critical analysis, which I believe will illuminate what we mean when we use the term, and overcome some of the problems that currently exist. In this way the term can be rescued from such problems, and become again a useful and practical concept. In doing so, I aim to elucidate some of the limitations which arise from the particular way that NCVQ and TEED have operationalised the concept, especially in the use of functional analysis as the sole method for attempting to develop competence-based NVQs. Finally, I shall argue that we must ultimately recognise the socially constructed nature of competence, and that far from this undermining the usefulness of the concept, it does in fact promote such usefulness. However, this must be accomplished through building on the processes which involve the key parties to education and training.


Considerable confusion has arisen over the differences of terminological usage, often but not exclusively indicated by the lexical terms 'competence' and 'competency'. In the USA the term 'competency' appears to be used most, particularly in teacher education and by McBer consultancy which undertook research for the American Management Association. McBer's work has influenced the debate in management education and development in the UK, mainly through Boyatzis' book 'The Competent Manager' (Boyatzis, 1982). In 1984 the UK's Further Education Unit published 'Towards a Competency-Based System', and later in 1987 a FEU/ PICKUP project report referred to 'competency-based vocational education' (Hermann and Kenyon, 1987). Boam and Sparrow (1992) continued to use the term 'competency', but began their preface with the statement that

"Throughout the late 1980s many organizations began to focus parts of their human resource management system on the concept of a defined set of 'competencies' or `competences' for managers."

However, the MSC and NCVQ adopted the term 'competence' and this has increasingly become the norm through the development of 'standards-based' national vocational qualifications. This applies not only in terms of specific occupational competence, the focus of NVQs, but also in respect of 'personal competences' (Horton and Hallmark, 1991).

However, such terminological standardisation has not eradicated the conceptual confusion that exists. One difficulty arises in the use of the terms to refer to an individual's overall competence in particular field (eg P's competence as a plumber), and particular areas within that field in which the individual is competent (eg soldering, cutting pipes, tightening nuts to required tension, etc). This raises issues about the relationship of one to the other. Are competences parts of overall competence? If so, does a full specification of all the parts constitute the whole, or is there something else, eg some meta-competence (Fleming, 1991)? Or are competences used by someone when performing competently?

A more critical division exists between the use of the term(s) to refer to a characteristic or characteristics of an individual and the usage of the term 'competence' to refer to pre-specified behavioural outcomes. Boyatzis (1982) defines a competency as

"... an underlying characteristic of a person which results in effective action and/or superior performance in a job."

He expands on this to say that underlying characteristics may include motives, traits, skills, aspects of one's self-image or social role, or a body of knowledge that a person uses. Similarly, the FEU (1984) defined competence as

"... the possession and development of sufficient skills, knowledge, appropriate attitudes and experience for successful performance in life roles."

And even the MSC/ Training Agency/ TEED (Training Agency, 1988a) has defined 'competence' as "the ability to perform the activities within an occupation". The gloss on this states that

"Competence is a wide concept which embodies the ability to transfer skills and knowledge to new situations within the occupational area." (emphasis added)

These definitions clearly treat competence/ competency as a personal attribute. The focus for analysing competence is thus on individuals. Typically this would involve examining differences between individuals who are judged to be 'superior' performers and individuals who are judged to be 'less-than-satisfactory'. Such differences then are treated as providing the framework of competences which give rise to 'superior' performance.

However, a quite different usage has been adopted by the Employment Department's Standards Programme. The Standards Programme was established by the MSC as part of the development of the NVQ system and now undertaken by its successor TEED (the Employment Department's Training, Enterprise and Education Directorate). The Employment Department has funded most of the work undertaken by the Lead Bodies set up to establish the occupational standards on which NVQs are based, funded other related research and development activities, and published a significant number of key documents. In one important document, entitled 'The Definition of Competences and Performance Criteria', it is stated that

"A competence is a description of something which a person who works in a given occupational area should be able to do. It is a description of an action, behaviour or outcome which a person should be able to demonstrate." (Training Agency, 1988b; emphasis added)

This definition thus presents competence as external to the individual. This is further emphasised by Stuart:

"While an individual may be deemed 'competent', 'occupational competence' relates to the functions associated with an occupation. Standards of competence are used to describe the characteristics of the function(s) and so are independent of the individual." (Stuart, 1989, p.11, emphasis added)

This approach shifts the focus for analysing competence away from the individual and onto the occupation or job. So the NVQ system is based on 'occupational standards' which are derived by an abstracted analysis of occupations, quite independently from any examination of the actual performance of real people in concrete work settings.

The justification of the 'Standards' approach is that it provides for an outcomes-based approach to vocational education and training. When this is coupled with the specification of required outcomes for pupils at different stages in the National Curriculum, an 'emerging model' of education and training is being developed, according the Jessup (1991). Rather than having to identify the 'inputs' to occupational competence (or 'educational attainment'), a standardised framework of 'outputs' or 'outcomes' can be developed. Assessment then becomes a process of comparing actual performance against the stated standards of performance. In the context of vocational education, competence is attributed when sufficient evidence of satisfactory performance is accumulated.

Despite such obvious difference between these two concepts of competence, both are based on a positivist view. The personal-characteristic approach assumes that there is some real quality which an individual does or does not possess, or that the quality of 'being competent' is or is not descriptive of an individual. This gives rise to the question of the nature of such competence(s). Lacking any physical existence, 'competences' have uncertain status. Most applications of this approach tend to focus on behavioural indicators within specified contexts, particularly when used within assessment centres. The 'standards' approach is much more strongly positivist, and, as Assiter (1991) points out, closely parallels the logical positivism of the Verificationist movement in epistemology. Thus the meaning of a statement of competence is wholly determined by the set of statements of observation of performance.

Such logical manoeuvres do not really illuminate the nature of competence. There is the critical problem of induction, ie inferring from a limited sample of performance evidence to the generalised attribution of competence (Assiter, op cit). In effect, as Ashworth and Saxton (1990) point out, competence becomes identified with performance.

However, it is important to distinguish between competence and performance. A person may be a competent car driver, but weather and traffic conditions may combine in some way that performance on a particular occasion is not to the standard required by the Highway Code or even the law. Or perhaps a lack of commitment to the ideal of avoiding alcoholic drink when driving may result in poor performance. But poor performance does not equal lack of competence. This point is made by Boyatzis, who states that

"Actions, their results, and the necessary characteristics being expressed do not necessarily have a one-to-one correspondence." (1982, p.21)

Moreover, the usefulness of the term 'competence' depends on there being such a distinction. For if the attribution of competence merely means that certain performance has been undertaken, why is it necessary to have a separate form of words? In reality, of course, we do normally treat a statement that someone is competent as communicating additional information to the statement that certain performance has been undertaken. It is the crucial question of what is being communicated that we need to examine to understand the concept of competence and avoid the conceptual confusion which has arisen.


At first sight, the term 'competent' does appear to be descriptive. That is we use the present tense of the verb 'to be': 'She is a competent manager', 'He is competent in using Lotus 1-2-3'. However, this is somewhat misleading. It is important to recognise that, to say that A is a competent manager (or trainer, interviewer, or whatever) is a very different type of statement from saying that A is bald. There is no immediately observable quality of 'being a competent manager', unlike the immediately observable, and measurable, quality of being bald. Similarly, when we say that B has the competence of problem analysis, we are making a very different type of statement from saying that B has an impacted wisdom tooth. There is no entity of 'problem-analysis competence' which B possesses, and which can be observed in the same way as an impacted wisdom tooth. Nor is there some tool-like entity called 'problem-analyser' which B uses, as she might use a computer to undertake data analysis.

If we examine the circumstances in which we would tend to make a statement of the form 'P is competent', certain key features are noticeable. We should note the rather formal, almost official tone of such a statement. In ordinary usage we would tend to use other terms, such as 'good', 'effective', 'capable', 'skilled', even the vernacular 'OK'. We would tend to use the term 'competent' in settings where some judgement or verdict is being made on an individual. Such a judgement would form part of a social process resulting in a decision to grant or withhold some desirable good, eg a job, a promotion, greater authority and responsibility, a qualification. This signifies that the term constitutes a different form of utterance from one that merely describes some feature of the individual in question. As Austin (1976) pointed out

"many specially perplexing statements do not serve to indicate some specially odd additional feature in the reality reported, but to indicate (not to report) the circumstances in which the statement is made or reservations to which it is subject or the way it is to be taken and the like."

Building on Austin's insights into the way in which we ordinarily use language to communicate a wide variety of matters, not merely descriptions of some purported reality, we can begin to develop a clearer understanding of how we use the concept of competence. One important aspect of this is that when person P utters the statement that person Q is competent, we would normally take it is as understood P expects some consequences to follow from this. For example, we would be puzzled if at a selection board meeting one of the selectors, P, says 'Q is competent and I wouldn't employ her'. We would require P to elaborate on such a statement as ordinarily in such a setting the attribution of competence about someone is taken to be a sign that one would be willing to employ them.

One way of putting this is to say that the attribution of competence is an expression of confidence. Confidence about what? Clearly, it is confidence in the performance which we anticipate the individual would undertake, under certain (not necessarily explicitly stated) circumstances, and the degree to which such performance is in line with the performance which we desire or require. In anticipating such future performance, we will normally make an inference from past performance.

Such a view of competence is a form of what Ryle (1949) referred to as an 'inference-ticket', enabling us to engage in wide-ranging action without constantly checking back. The Further Education Staff College's Guide to Work-Based Learning Terms (1989) is thus logically incorrect when it states that

"one may predict from knowing that someone is competent that they will perform successfully in certain circumstances..."

for to attribute competence to someone is to commit oneself to an inference about such performance. Such an inference constitutes a prediction, always tentative and subject to the test of experience, but made with sufficient confidence to warrant taking action associated with the prediction, eg award of a qualification, offer of a job or promotion, granting of wider autonomy and authority.

This inference is, of course, normally based on a person's current or past performance. However, it is not restricted to it, that is, competence inferred is greater than performance observed. It is because the attribution of competence signifies confidence about future performance, and not merely assurance about past performance, that the concept of 'competence' can be a useful one. This usefulness lies in the confidence with which certain decisions can be made in respect of the deployment and development of those to whom the term is applied. The key issue is one of determining the conditions under which the attribution of competence may be confidently made.


The analysis so far yields three key elements in the attribution of competence :

1) the observation of performance in one situation (ie in the assessment context);

2) the inference from this to anticipated performance in another situation (eg the work context, or other parts of a course of study);

3) the judgement of the extent to which the anticipated performance matches the required performance.

The first and third of these indicate that the attribution of competence is anchored in performance (observed, anticipated, required), and so it is important to examine issues about the nature of performance. The second element emphasises the fact that the attribution of competence involves more than observation of performance, and raises issues about the basis on which inferences are made.

Models of performance

Observation of actual performance always involves some implicit or explicit model of performance, that is, some way in which the actions or behaviour of an individual gives rise to certain outcomes. Through such a model of performance the significant features of what is an on-going stream of activity and events are identified and separated out. These are 'highlighted' or 'foregrounded', deemed to be critical in accomplishing desired outcomes. By contrast, other features of the situation are put into the background, deemed to be unimportant in relation to the desired outcomes. This is a familiar idea within the psychology of perception, as well as a now well-recognised principle in the philosophy of science (though often honoured in the breach by positivist social scientists!).

This requirement for a model of performance also applies in respect of performance which is anticipated and of performance which is required. In order to compare these, the key features must be the same. However, there is no logical requirement for the key features of observed performance to be identical with those of the anticipated/ desired performance. Indeed, we should note that the usefulness of any approach to competence assessment is greatest when there is a considerable difference between the key features of the situation in which performance is observed and those key features of the context of the anticipated / desired performance. What is important is the extent to which the model of performance is deemed to be a valid way of explaining the relationship between what an individual does and what is the result of such action.

In the fields of education and training a wide variety of models of performance have been developed, sometimes explicitly based on social science theory and research and deemed to have wide application, sometimes developed pragmatically on 'commonsense' notions to meet particular needs. The model of performance on which the NVQ-system is currently based is merely one of many possible models. The wide variety of models may be grouped into three main types, depending upon the particular view they take of human work performance. I shall refer to these as the JOB, the ROLE and the PERSON approaches.

Human work performance is highly complex, and may be viewed in different ways. In examining performance we can firstly concentrate on the observable activities which are performed, treating the job as existing independently of the jobholder (the 'job' or 'technical' approach). Secondly we can focus on the performance of the individual within a social context, examining work performance as the enactment of role which emerges through the interaction between the roleholder and others with their varying perceptions, expectation, etc (the 'role' or 'social' approach). Thirdly, we can examine an individual's work performance in terms of its relationship to, or expression of, the real person with broader 'life' issues (the 'personal' or 'biographical' approach).

Job Approach

The 'job' or 'technical' approach has clearly dominated much of the training literature, and possibly much of the practice. Based on Scientific Management principles, it was incorporated into training practice in the early days of the industrial training boards (ITBs), and so promulgated through guidance given by the ITBs, training given to trainers, and the sanctions and rewards of the levy-grant and levy-exemption systems. Specific techniques of task breakdown, task analysis, and skills analysis became identified as the key techniques for analysing training needs. The individual job holder is not important in such an approach; the job or occupation is important, can be analysed in and by itself, in order to establish what someone must learn and be able to do to perform the job effectively/ competently.

Clearly functional analysis is a technique within this 'job' approach. The explanation given in the Training Agency Guidance Note 'Developing Standards by Reference to Functions' demonstrates this.

"Within any organisation ... each individual contributes to the organisation performing effectively. They do so by carrying out those functions which lead to the organisation satisfying its mission or purpose. Functional analysis is the process of identifying those functions and breaking them down until they are described in sufficient detail to be used as standards." (Training Agency, 1989)

And as Mansfield, one of the originators of functional analysis, states, it is a 'top down' method (1989b).

'Role' Approach

While the 'job' approach has dominated training literature, it is by no means the only approach. The 'role' approach can be seen in the work of Pettigrew et al (1982), examining training specialist roles. They particularly focussed on the training and development issues arising for those who were attempting to move from 'provider' roles to 'change agent' roles. The important issues were those of 'fit' between personal style, role, and organisational culture, and of 'survival and influence', arising from strategies adopted for maintaining legitimacy, for managing role boundaries, and for accessing sources of power and influence. The research enabled the Chemical and Allied Products Industry Training Board, sponsoring the research, to develop workshops to help real trainers to develop their competence in the real organisational contexts in which they operated.

Similarly, the work undertaken by Walters (1979) on supervisory development in the hotel and catering industry focussed on a 'role' approach.

"The supervisor's relationships with other people at work are another important aspect of his [sic] job which cannot easily be determined from job descriptions and specification. Each of these people, whether they be managers, colleagues, specialists or customers, will have expectations of the supervisor -expectations of the way in which he conducts his work, of the way in which he interacts with them, and of his level of authority and power." (Walters, 1979, p.5)

A comprehensive approach to supervisory development was developed which started with a role clarification and renegotiation between supervisor and her/his line manager.

'Person' Approach

What I have called the 'person' or 'biographical' approach can be seen in a number of initiatives. Cranfield Management School undertook research for the HCITB (Parker and Lewis, 1981) on the problems experienced by managers who were promoted, typically from managing a single unit to managing managers. They adopted the Adams, Hayes, Hopkins model of the process of life-transitions, to develop a model of managerial transition, particularly in terms of promotion. This described how the initial shock of finding that the new job does match expectations then turns to feelings of confusion and incompetence, as the skills and behaviour patterns which had previously been successful now seem to be ineffective. Only by 'letting go' of past understandings and behaviour can the promoted manager begin to adopt new ways of understanding what is involved in being a manager in the new situation and what strategies are appropriate. This period of transition typically lasted two to two and a half years - if the manager lasted that long! The 'Manager in Transition' development programme based on this research employed a range of approaches for developing greater self-insight, for career review, and for devising strategies for gaining competence in the new role.

Functional analysis - an impoverished model

The importance of the foregoing discussion of different types of models is that the adoption of one approach will lead to key features of human work performance being missed from the analysis. The fundamentalist insistence by the Employment Department that functional analysis will be the sole method for the development of occupational standards has deflected attention away from other, proven approaches. This may be partly explained by the administrative logic-of-action of the MSC/ Training Agency/ TEED bureaucracy, whereby a standardised format for all occupational standards is highly valued but the specific nature and content of these is relatively unimportant. This enables quantitative measurement of qualifications awarded. However, the consequence has been an impoverished approach to the analysis of what gives rise to desirable performance in order to bring about a qualitative improvement in the abilities of the workforce.


The inference from observed performance to anticipated performance implies that some rules of inference are being used. That is, there is some regularity in the way that anticipation is made, so that under similar circumstances similar judgements are made about the appropriateness of moving from observation to anticipation. Such rules of inference involve some notion of transferability from one context to another, and so would include some conceptual model or theory of contexts or 'domains' (Bridges, 1992). In addition, when making inferences from observed performance we are making judgements about the underlying basis of such performance. This is usually expressed in terms of capabilities and attributes which the individual possesses, or expresses.

The term 'competency' as used by Boyatzis (1982), by Boam and Sparrow (1992), by Woodruffe (1991), the term 'personal competence' as used by MCI, and other cognate terms such as 'transferable skills', are all used to refer to these aspects of what is deemed to be the underlying basis for performance. In effect, they serve as a form of 'wild card', proxy or surrogate terms for whatever is deemed to underly performance. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to create lists of such competencies/ transferable skills which are composed of different types of capabilities, lacking any conceptual cohesiveness and presented as relatively unproblematic. It is essential to recognise the 'proxy' nature of the concept of competencies/ competences, and to avoid treating them as having real existence.

The elements which are deemed to underly performance are normally regarded as capable of being learned and/or developed. So a key aspect of the rules of inference is the notion that where someone's performance is deemed to be a consequence of a process of learning and/or development, that performance will be replicated in other similar or related circumstances. This points to the importance of taking account of such processes of learning/ development when devising an approach to the assessment of competence. This is of course directly contrary to the official NVQ approach which states that such processes should not form part of the process of assessment.

Of course there are difficulties here. Despite much research, our understanding of the processes of learning and development are still fairly limited. On the other hand, there is much of practical value in such research, and the most important issue to be faced is that of application of the research. Certainly the growing emphasis on experience-based approaches has an important role to play. This involves more than a simplistic application of the so-called 'Kolb learning cycle', where 'experience' is deemed to be categorical, individuals are expected to reflect as if this were an activity like jumping or kicking, 'conceptualisation' takes place naturally and unproblematically, and relevant 'experimentation' flows easily from conceptualisation. Rather, there is a need to recognise that learning is a complex process by which individuals actively make sense of their experience, under conditions of previous learning, in a social context (Jarvis, 1987; Nespor, 1988).

Inference rules might also include the requirement for information other than demonstrated performance. The NVQ approach puts the primary emphasis on performance as specified in the elements of competence. Knowledge and understanding are regarded as 'underpinning' performance, which need to be assessed separately only when they cannot be inferred from performance.

However, there may be situations in which assessment which concentrates on such knowledge and understanding may be deemed to provide better grounds for inferring competence than actual performance. Performance is often not easily observed, unequivocal activity, clearly distinguishable from the context in which it takes place (Ashworth and Saxton, 1990). Take, for example, the conduct of a negotiation. Observation may not provide much information of any value, as conventional, almost ritualised interaction takes place between the two parties, and through various stages a final agreement is reached. Rather, we would probably gain much more relevant information about the performance of one of the individuals, on which to infer competence or not, by a discussion with that person on such issues as the understanding s/he had of the situation as it unfolded, how the strategy adopted was chosen, and how this was translated into actions and behaviour. We would no doubt wish to know how the individual assessed their own performance, so as to decide whether we would attribute competence.

So inference rules may specify what type of information might be required. They might also indicate what to do with particular types of information, particularly when further information is not obtainable. The obvious example here is when an individual seeks accreditation for what s/he claims is existing competence. NCVQ and MCI place great emphasis on accreditation of prior learning. However, the approach recommended places an enormous burden on candidates to accumulate evidence from performance. This would be needed to ensure that there is evidence of performance to the required standard of relevant elements of competence, of sufficient frequency, and over the required range. Further problems of authenticity arise: how can we be sure that the person did as they claim? Perhaps we need the evidence to be authenticated by a third party, for example an 'affidavit' from the line manager at the time of the performance?

These problems are only such where there is a fundamentalist insistence on performance evidence. Where this is dropped to allow some form of reflective 'self-report', the issue of inference becomes less problematic. For we generally regard discursive critical accounts of a person's performance as requiring a higher level of ability than mere performance, where the performance is mainly cognitive in nature. Even in the case of interpersonal performance, such accounts provide information about the degree of empathy and sensitivity, and the range of the behavioural repertoire, about which the individual is aware. These would normally be taken as valuable information to indicate expected future interpersonal performance, perhaps more so that visible bodily behaviour and audible speech in actual performance.


We can now put together the strands of the argument developed above to reformulate the concept of competence in a way which rescues it from the approach promulgated by the Employment Department and NCVQ, weighed down by the emphasis on collecting large quantities of performance evidence. Rather, the attribution of competence is an expression of confidence we have that the performance we anticipate an individual will produce, inferred from observed performance, will match the performance we require to an appropriate degree. To achieve the key elements in this process, we must implicitly or explicitly draw upon models of performance and utilise rules of inference. As Stewart and Hamlin (1992) point out, established methodologies provide clear advantages over the NCVQ approach to competence. Indeed, they argue, convincingly I believe, that the claims made by the proponents of NCVQ are false, based on myths about traditional approaches.

Two further issues arise. First, since the concept of competence involves some reference to desired or required performance, the question may now be put of who it is that desires or requires that performance. Where there is an identifiable individual or set of individuals, for example an individual's line manager, then they can be called upon to specify the desired performance. This is generally accepted in the training context. However, in the case of vocational and professional qualifications there is no specific identifiable individual(s), but rather an anonymous, generalised 'client'. Here the specification of required performance is necessarily generalised. So-called 'national standards' for occupations are of this kind, but there is then the problem of ensuring that there are national standards for inferring competence. In the case of further and higher education there is the additional difficulty of the wide range of situations in which the graduates will be engaging in the performance for which the qualifications are deemed to be relevant. Her e , it is impossible even to specify 'national standards'.

Secondly, when A states that B is 'competent', A is making a judgement. So what gives A the right to make such a judgement? Normally, we would not expect someone to pass comment on another's competence unless that first person has some interest in the matter, some purpose in making such an utterance. So, a manager might make such a statement when conducting an appraisal, or deciding on the deployment of staff. An interviewer, or member of an assessment centre panel, might do so when discussing a candidate for recruitment or promotion. An assessor in an educational or training setting might do so when passing judgement on an individual being assessed. Equally, in each of these settings, the individual whose competence is being discussed might make a claim to be competent.

All such judgements are thus based on some interest in the outcome: a pay increase, a job, progression within a programme of study, a qualification. Because of this, there is always a possibility of difference of interest, and so in difference of judgement. Evidence of actual performance, and what this indicates about future performance, is subject to interpretation. Agreement on rules of inference cannot be fully prescribed. Even the nature of what counts as required/ desired performance may be subject to contestation. What this points to is that when there is agreement over the attribution of competence, this is not because this has been objectively 'measured' but rather that it has been socially negotiated. The apparent objective nature of competence is a reification of the social processes by which agreement over the attribution of competence is accomplished. So, by its very nature, competence is socially constructed. Any attempt to present competence as objective is misguided (assuming it is well-intentioned).

The socially constructed nature of competence is clear from the essential characteristic of the attribution of competence as an expression of confidence within a social process leading to the granting or withholding of some desirable good. Such confidence is a social accomplishment, arrived at consensually. It requires agreement by the parties involved on how performance is interpreted, what this signifies in terms of the likely future performance, and the degree to which this matches what is desired.

Far from destroying the value of the concept of competence, the recognition of its socially constructed nature can result in a concept which is more useful than the 'standards' approach. It points to the need to build on and develop further the links which exist between the partners to education and training processes. These partners may be considered as being tri-partite: learners/ students, educators/ trainers, and 'sponsors'. In a training context the sponsors are normally the employers of the learners. In further and higher education it is more difficult to specify the sponsor, which may usually be seen as 'society' in general. However, given that the relationship of education to the needs of employment is the normal basis on which competence is a key concern, the involvement of representatives of employing organisations will serve to promote the tripartite relationships necessary for developing a competence approach which is useful to all concerned. What is essential is a true dialogue between the parties to create the condition under which confidence is promoted, rather than the application of a false notion of 'standards' created by bureaucratic diktat.


The dominance of the Employment Department and NCVQ in the competence debate has led to distortions in understanding of the concept, leading to problems of operationalising the term in a manner which is practical in educational and training contexts. The emphasis on 'pantechnicons of evidence' has turned the original proposals of the Review of Vocational Qualifications for a relevant, cost-effective system into a bureaucratic quagmire of performance evidence and verification. A re-analysis of the concept in terms of the way the term is used leads us to a change of focus towards the conditions under which appropriate inferences can be made about future performance, and where all parties to the process can build and develop greater confidence in the decisions based on such inferences.


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