The widening of access to certification processes that recognize and validate individual learning outcomes as a formal qualification was a vital part of the reform of the French vocational education sector, which was part of the Social Modernisation Act of 2002 (Loi de modernisation social).
Challenges and opportunities. At the turn of the century, the French education system faced several challenges: the massive increase of numbers in secondary education, the separation of initial training and continuing education, and the need for closer and more genuine links between schools, companies and services.
National standards, policy and framework activity. In order to meet these challenges, the Social Modernisation Act declared the right of each individual to have learning outcomes acquired through a minimum of 3 years of work experience – as an employee, freelancer or volunteer – to be recognised and assessed against a formal qualification. This is carried out using a mechanism which, in France, is called Validation of Acquired Experience (VAE) (Validation des acquis de l'expérience). The French specificity is that this right is fully tied to the national qualification framework. VAE provides access to all the qualifications listed in the National Directory of Vocational Qualifications (Répertoire National des Certifications Professionnelles, RNCP), which was launched in 2002 (Loi du 17 janvier 2002).
The RNCP lists all vocational diplomas or degrees that are accredited by a national Committee (Commission Nationale de la Certification Professionnelle, CNPC). The CNPC includes representatives of the State as well as social partners and is responsible for accreditation procedures, whatever the qualifications. Following the reforms main intentions, the qualifications listed in the RNCP are described in terms of learning outcomes in relation to competence standards.
Stakeholder engagement. Whereas the general structure and quality assurance of qualification and certification procedures are managed at a national level, issues concerning the vocational training sector and the actual VAE procedures are decentralized (they are e.g. funded by the regions). Responsibilities and competences are interwoven: At ministerial level (Ministry of Education), in every institution of education or research a decentralised structure has been launched that identifies points of contact and guidance. The responsibility for defining the concrete VAE processes and methodologies lies then again with the higher education and continuing training sector and its stakeholders. Finally, a national network of VAE practitioners contributes to the harmonization of practices.
In general, the process of VAE is broken down into five phases: The first phase comprises consultation, information, and guidance. The second phase is when the application of the candidate conforms to the legal and administrative rules. The third phase comprises the preparation of a dossier of evidence usually with the assistance of an advisor. The fourth phase is when the VAE board of examiners evaluates the application. Finally, the VAE board assesses the candidate’s claim and provides feedback on his/her future pathway. In cases where the board instructs the candidate to further develop his/her project and to complete the certification process, it will also monitor his/her progress.
France allows two methods of documenting and verifying the acquired skills. The main method is declarative, usually involving a written application in which the candidate describes the activities he or she relates to the desired diploma/degree, clearly stating the experience gained. The candidate attaches all documents that demonstrate and prove this acquired experience: work certificates, examples of professional achievements, and so on. The second, and less common, method is to organize a real or simulated situation in which the candidate demonstrates his or her acquired experience by performing professional tasks.
The recognition of acquired experience puts the individual at the centre of the assessment process. The candidate takes part in an interview with a board of examiners, who judge the learning outcomes of his/her experience on the basis of standards and references of the profession and the required certification. The members of the board are expected to evaluate the skills and knowledge that candidates have obtained non-formally or informally and verify that they can demonstrate these skills in ways other than by academic examination.
In general, candidates are asked not only to describe the work they have done but also to explain how they acquired the skills and knowledge and what results they obtained. By asking candidates to analyse their own competences, their schemes of thinking, the models they use and their methodologies, the examiners can better understand whether the acquired experience is closely dependent on the context in which it was obtained or whether it is transferable to other situations.
Based on this assessment, the board awards the certification, rejects the application or grants it partially. In the latter case, it must provide the candidate with guidance on how to build on his or her experience to attain full certification, including the completion of additional training modules. Thus, assessment not only has the potential to result in the award of a qualification, but can also steer candidates’ personal and professional progress and provides them with tools to aid their further professional development.
The impact of VAE procedures is manifold:
- VAE has an impact on programme design and pedagogical approaches. Professional activities and practical skills are recognized as important as knowledge acquisition and traditional school-based learning. Furthermore, there is increasing awareness of the fact that the activities of employees, freelancers, volunteers and union activists are enriching, rewarding and possibly equivalent to formal learning settings.
- VAE initiates steps towards the reconceptualization of the education system, methods of certification, and challenges the tendency to place abstract and practical knowledge in opposition to one another. Rather, personal and professional development entails both praxis and theory, which are in constant interaction with each other. The system of transmitting knowledge and certification has for a long time been based solely on an academic logic. However, this logic is insufficient when designing programmes and methods that recognise professional activities and skills, and not only academic knowledge.
- VAE also questions a French professional hierarchy that is very strongly based on degrees, and opens up the possibility of limiting the social and economic damage of dropping out of school, or failing, by taking into account learning outcomes acquired through experience.
- Finally, VAE is a social issue for all those who have not had the opportunity or aptitude to acquire a good school education, enabling them to acquire a qualification that is recognized on the labour market.
Since the introduction of the VAE system in 2002 and until 2013, a total of 129.000 diplomas have been awarded.
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An act. 2008. Les démarches collectives de VAE, novembre 2008.
Committee on Education at the French National Commission for UNESCO in Paris
and Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM)
With assistance from:
University of Hamburg, Germany