Perspectives on National Occupational Standards in UK – What do users think?

This research explored stakeholder perceptions and use of National Occupational Standards (NOS), and visions for their future, to inform the NOS Governance Group’s pre-strategy work. It was conducted by the Edge Foundation between December 2019 and May 2020 and involved interviews with 28 stakeholders.

From the early 1980s, occupational standards have been evolving in the context of a dynamic policy, regulatory and delivery landscape. National Occupational Standards (NOS) specifying the standard of performance required when carrying out a function in the workplace, together with the knowledge and understanding needed to meet that standard consistently, were intended to be UK-wide, explicit and accessible. By 2020, the vision was NOS would be widely used and valued as essential for ensuring ‘a competent, flexible and safe workforce for driving a productive, globally competitive and sustainable economy’.
l However, there are now new opportunities and challenges to be considered with the emerging 4th industrial revolution, some being brought into sharp relief by the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, while new technologies can bring benefits such as increased quality, efficiency and enjoyment in life, there can be negative effects on individuals from the de-skilling of jobs, loss of autonomy, increased surveillance and reduction in the number and quality of social relationships. One big concern is the growing inequality in society. Not all will be able to access, afford and enjoy the innovations, with changes in working conditions and labour relations leading to insecurity in job tenure and higher levels of unemployment disproportionately affecting lower-income cohorts. How business is done is being re-examined with rapid changes in job roles and the trend is gathering pace for new ways of working and serving customer needs in response to the pandemic.
Why use NOS

Value was said to be accrued from NOS through the collaborative work and sharing of resources and expertise between nations, to achieve alignment of systems and support workforce mobility. Employer-led definitions of competency and the common quality assurance system for ensuring currency and validity were also thought beneficial.

Qualification developers and employers said NOS were valued for the detail provided of what is expected in different work roles. They could save time and effort in determining the content of qualifications and potentially enable employers to recognise the skills of those being recruited and inform workforce development. Although it was believed that the main focus in education and training contexts tended to be qualifications, rather than NOS, it was suggested that both providers and learners could benefit from knowing that these were based on NOS, reflecting sector requirements and endorsed by employers.

Challenges in developing and using NOS

Challenges were mainly related to funding and resource issues for NOS management, and for keeping NOS up to date in sectors subject to a fast pace of change. It was sometimes not easy to sustain employer engagement to ensure consultations are inclusive, with employers citing difficulties in finding time to deal with the complexity and length of NOS documents.

For those operating across borders, additional difficulties were faced in reconciling differences between apprenticeships in England and the Devolved Administrations. Such divergence was leading to more fragmentation, competition and uncertainties in the marketplace with regard to the financial viability, supply and portability of qualifications across all four nations.

While there was limited regular use of the NOS database by respondents, size of the database and duplication, exacerbated by problems with its search functionality, was said to make it hard to access the required NOS.
Vision & shaping the future

Overall, respondents agreed it was important to have common, guiding principles to support consistency in approach, preferably UK-wide, in setting industry benchmarks and measuring competency. Also, to support the transferability of skills and competencies, and the portability of quality assured qualifications.

Most suggestions for the future of NOS related to policy and management, including the need for: overt government commitment, four-nation engagement, clarity and better coordination in policy direction and priorities; alignment with industrial strategy, rather than moving forward on all fronts in all industries.

Recommendations for awareness-raising and promotion of NOS were next highest (although half those on policy and management), to increase understanding of NOS and potential uses.

Other suggestions were more-or-less equally split between addressing issues to do with access to NOS, relating to format and the currency, size and functionality of the website/database, and those concerned with resourcing. There was a strong call for reviewing the funding model as it drives behaviour and impacts on the efficiency and effectiveness of the NOS system. It was thought that a combination of government and industry funding may be needed.


Purposeful sampling of stakeholder perceptions of the benefits and challenges in using NOS and visions for their future, drawn from 28 in-depth interviews, elicited largely positive responses about the future of NOS, albeit with some caveats.

In analysing responses to the research, several possible futures for NOS could be identified, ranging from maintaining the status quo at one end of a continuum to developing new forms of standards at the other end. Most respondents seemed to prefer retaining NOS in their current form (familiar, less disruption to the market), but with further improvements to the NOS database such as reduction in size and better search functionality, wider communication and marketing, and faster updating of NOS. Others suggested: producing additional products to meet the needs of specific target users, e.g. to provide less complex versions and show how NOS can be used more flexibly; or, more radically, developing new forms of occupational standards, informed by the English model and others such as World Skills, while adhering to agreed principles.

The rapid pace of change, complexity of emerging technologies and the broader impacts of the 4th industrial revolution, coupled with the fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic, mean that there will be challenges for governments in taking forward the NOS system. There will be a need to think strategically, adopt ‘agile’ governance, continuously adapt to new, fast-changing environments and collaborate closely with business and civil society to be in a position to reflect common objectives and values and shape a future that works for all.

In looking at the desirability and viability of different futures for NOS (the above views are not exclusive), thought would need to be given to the:
– balance between potential advantages and disadvantages, and for whom
– level of support likely from the respective governments and stakeholders
– scope for change given other policy priorities
– practical/financial implications for each nation, their partners and NOS users – availability of the necessary funding and resources to deliver what is required.

There are a number of underpinning considerations that are important in setting the direction for the future of NOS, irrespective of the extent of desired changes along the continuum described in the conclusion.

  • Identify priorities in terms of the: target user groups; purposes for using national occupational standards; sectors and occupations to be covered
  • Identify the underlying principles of NOS
  • Develop a clear link between purpose, target group and needs with regard to content and presentation of standards taking into account different uses
  • Consider the economic, social and policy contexts in which national occupational standards will operate, including their relationship to other standards and qualifications, and identify the key developments and needs to which they relate using transparent and consistent LMI and other data sources
  • Identify potential funding model and the resources necessary to deliver what is required and re-visit priorities in relation to what resources will, realistically, be available
  • Maintain an inclusive, employer-led approach to developing national occupational standards through consulting widely with target user groups and stakeholders to develop documents that are fit for purpose and target group, and user-friendly
  • Develop the website/database to serve the respective user groups and ensure it is easy to navigate
  • Strengthen profile of national occupational standards within skills systems through the development and delivery of an effective, targeted and ongoing communications and marketing strategy
  • Develop an evaluation strategy to identify what works well, and the effectiveness of procedures to address any issues.

Source: Perspectives on National Occupational Standards: What do users think? | Edge Foundation


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