The National Skills Academy believes the professional cookery diploma can deliver the training that employers need. But questions remain, says Chris Druce
Last week, the National Skills Academy for Hospitality (NSA) revealed the first four catering colleges it has accredited for delivery of the professional cookery diploma.
London's Westminster Kingsway, Leeds Thomas Danby, University College Birmingham and Newcastle College have set the bar for delivery excellence for their peers, according to NSA chief executive David McHattie.
"We are endorsing these four colleges because the teaching they provide is excellent. These four colleges not only serve employers with skilled chefs, they also provide students with the very best foundations for a long and successful career," he told delegates at the Professional Association for Catering Excellence conference dinner in Northamptonshire.
These centres of excellence, the theory goes, will have a "halo effect" for the industry, where at least 70 catering colleges now deliver the professional cookery diploma at levels one and two (the advanced level three is currently being piloted).
But won't this create a two-tier system for the diploma, one of the new Vocationally Related Qualifications (VRQs)? Certainly not, according to McHattie. "We want academy status to be aspirational," he said. "This is about encouraging colleges to reach the standards of the very best. We're making it very clear and transparent for everybody how that status is gained and they can come to us for advice and guidance."
Certainly, clarity is something employers want, lost as it is among an ever-changing qualifications landscape. Sean Wheeler, group director of people development at Hotel du Vin and Malmaison, wrote to Caterer last month after Gordon Ramsay's latest publicity-chasing rant at the standard of catering colleges (Caterer, 12 March), warning that "until we reach consensus on a benchmark standard for core craft skills, we're condemned to travel separately".
The Association Culinare Francaise, drawing membership from a number of colleges, has also criticised the development of the VRQs, arguing that a "good, basic chef's qualification should be enough to cover all aspects of our industry".
However, Sally Messenger, head of services industry at awarding body City & Guilds, insisted that, since VRQs have been developed with industry to provide a better mix of theory, practical skills and continual assessment, they do exactly that and are more relevant than the much-derided NVQs.
"The professional cookery diploma is there for someone who wants to go to college and learn to be a chef, picking up competencies and becoming more confidence in your abilities as you progress," she said. "That's different to the NVQ, which was designed for the workplace and assumes you are competent."
Messenger argued that the professional cookery diploma has the rigour that employers demanded, with those taking the one-year course put through a much tougher test, akin to being in the workplace, than those taking NVQs.
However, she conceded that the recent dismissal of VRQs from Ritz hotel executive chef John Williams - he told Caterer they were "better, but still rubbish" - was perhaps indicative of a general failure by educators to better communicate the professional cookery diploma, which was launched in 2006.
To address this, City & Guilds is organising workshops where businesses can witness students being put through their paces, and is pushing the diploma brand rather than the jargon of VRQ. But with the separate 14-19 diploma in hospitality set to be launched in September, it is unlikely to end the confusion around industry qualifications.
Undaunted, McHattie sees the professional cookery diploma as a real step forward. "The diploma is thorough and robust and the industry wants to know that it is delivered to an excellent standard," he said. "This is our job."
NATIONAL SKILLS ACADEMY ACTIVITY
VRQ OR NVQ?
The City & Guilds Diplomas in Professional Cookery qualifications (7100 series) have been designed primarily for learners wishing to become chefs and develop a career in the hospitality & catering industry. The aim of the qualifications is to build capability. They are classified as ‘vocationally related qualifications (VRQs)’.
City & Guilds launched the Level 1 and 2 Diplomas in Professional Cookery in September 2006 and there are now 70 colleges throughout the UK now involved in their delivery including University College Birmingham, Bournemouth, Colchester, Harlow, Norwich, Westminster Kingsway and Thames Valley University.
The Level 1 Diploma focuses on basic cooking processes alongside food safety, health and safety, healthier foods and special diets, workplace skills and kitchen equipment. The Level 2 Diploma offers progression and has a similar approach with the focus being on commodities plus the related areas found within the Level 1.
Each qualification is assessed by a series of practical and theory assignments. Thus for the Level 2 Diploma in Professional Cookery the learner will need to successfully complete 8 practical tests which require the preparation and cooking of a dish. In addition learners must complete two longer practical tests which focus them on preparing a set menu. Wherever possible industry chefs are invited to observe these tests. To get involved chefs can email email@example.com.
The Level 3 Diploma in Professional Cookery is currently being piloted.
The National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in Catering and Hospitality are designed to assess competence and are based on National Occupational Standards (NOS). Individuals following an NVQ must be observed in the workplace or a realistic working environment e.g. college restaurants. NVQs have been available for circa twenty years and are ideally suited to individuals in the workplace. For a variety of reasons the NVQs became the main type of qualification available for the hospitality and catering industry.
To gain an NVQ (available at Levels 1 to 4) the individual needs to be observed by an assessor, on a number of occasions, undertaking practical tasks. In addition there are theory questions designed to test understanding. Thus the NVQ is very much about assessing day to day performance and determining when an individual has achieved competence.
So what is the difference between the City & Guilds NVQs in Catering and Hospitality and the City & Guilds Diplomas in Professional Cookery (VRQs)?
In essence the two types of qualification suit differing needs. The Diplomas in Professional Cookery are recommended for learners wishing to build their capability – and this normally takes place within a college or university environment. The NVQs are complementary and well suited to individuals working in the industry and seeking to have their competence recognised. It is very pleasing that both types of qualification are now available for the hospitality and catering industry and indviduals.
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By Chris Druce