Case Study - The Assessors' Course

(The date of the course coincided with Margaret Thatcher's resignation: I would look that up but I can't be bothered)

1    The course attended was for the Trainers of Assessors, for National Vocational Qualifications in Social Care (which had not at that point been inaugurated).  It was a three-day programme, to be followed by a follow-up day after four months, with presentation of portfolios of work done in the meantime.  The researcher attended as a participant, initially with no intention of using the material of the course in his research. As the course developed, however, it became apparent that it provided relevant illustrative material.  The record of the first day was made from "normal" participant's notes made at the time, expanded by a much more detailed account produced that same evening when the significance of the event had become evident.  The record of subsequent days is based on detailed notes made at the time, to the extent that at one point the researcher was quizzed by one of the staff members about the nature of the notes he was making.  (See para. 40)

2    The account which follows has been confined to the plenary discussions: note was also made of small-group discussions in which the researcher participated, but since his small group may not have been typical of the course as a whole, no attempt has been made to utilise that material except insofar as it has a direct bearing on the plenary process.  Similarly, private conversations outside the sessions, although used extensively to check perceptions and interpretations, have not been referred to explicitly, unless they provide direct confirmation or contradiction of other interpretations in the main body of the record.  This approach has been adopted principally out of respect for other participants, with whom there was no contract to make use of private conversation in research.  Verbatim remarks are placed in double quotes (").  Within these constraints, every attempt has been made to provide as full a record as possible consistent with material in paras. 6.6, 18, and 18.2 (despite the fact that the latter provisions were never formally part of the course contract.

3    Because of the nature of the course, and the interaction of the content and the process, it has not been possible to disguise the material or the participants (including staff), other than by anonymity.  Staff members are referred to by initial.  Course members are referred to simply as members, except where the continuity demands that consistent contributions are linked to the specific contributor, in which case either an initial is used or cross-referencing to previous contributions is noted.  Where a contribution is made by the researcher, this is attributed, so that any influence on the course of the event can be noted.

4    The context of the course examined is the introduction of a new system of graded qualifications in Social Care (roughly residential-, day- and domiciliary care) within the scheme of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ).  This system replaces the In-Service Course in Social Care, examples of which yielded some of the material for earlier discussion in this research.  One of the Joint Awarding Bodies for the qualifications is the Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW), and as part of their effort to establish the required infra-structure for the programme, they require a sufficient number of assessors and associated roles to make the programme work.  One of the major concerns in such a national initiative is to ensure that all assessment is done consistently, according to agreed criteria.  In order to assess in a suitable manner, therefore, all assessors have to be trained, and the course in question was part of a rolling programme of workshops for lecturers and training staff within social service agencies to prepare them for the task of training assessors.

5    Like all NVQ qualifications, the Social Care awards are based on assessed practice in the work-place (or as near a simulation as possible).  The areas to be assessed, therefore, are not academic "subjects" but working "competences", and they are to be assessed according to specific criteria (Performance Criteria).  In addition, the assessment is characterised by also having to pay attention to "Core Performance Criteria" which enter into the assessment of all competences in the field.

6    The Core Performance Criteria, as listed in the "Residential Domiciliary and Day Care Project National Standards issued by the Care Sector Consortium" (HMSO, 1990) are:

7  The pre course information included the following criteria for selection of participants:

8  The programme sent out before the course included the following statements:

9  The style of the workshop: "We will all be learning through active participation in exercises, including role play, and in exploration of the core values which will include confrontation of some of our current practice."

10  The programme was published as:

It was scheduled to run from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm on each day, with breaks for drinks in the morning and afternoon as well as a lunch-break.

11  The course took place at the purpose-built training centre of a large voluntary organisation, with good facilities, although the plenary sessions were conducted in a slightly over-large conference hall, with the members sitting on upright chairs in a horse-shoe formation, with the staff in a line at the front.  Since the venue was in the northern reaches of the region, about half the course members were resident in local hotels: residential provision was not part of the course package.

12  The membership consisted of 26 people, all white, half male and half female.  Nineteen were training officers in health and social services and seven were education staff.

13  There were five staff, two male (A. and C.) and three female (B., D. and F.) two of whom were black (A. - Asian, and F. - Afro-Caribbean).


Day One

14  On the first day, the course begins (half an hour after the published time) with introductions, in which members are asked to specify:

This exercise is carried out at some length, following the lead which is set by the first member to answer: it takes three quarters of an hour to get round the group and the staff members.

15  Members are informed that two days of the three will be focussed on anti-racist and anti-discriminatory issues in NVQ.  There is a general murmur of surprise at this statement, but it is not challenged within the plenary session.  B. is introduced as the person who will be leading the first two days.  She explains that anti racist and anti discriminatory practice is central to the Core Performance Criteria of the NVQ scheme.

16  Members are then set an exercise in small groups (which they are left to set up for themselves) on specifying expectations and concerns about the course, and reactions to change.  These are recorded on flip-chart sheets, posted up and introduced by appointed group members on return to the plenary session.  The expectations and concerns expressed are not surprising, and [are] mainly technical questions about the operation of NVQ assessment.  None of them mention anti discriminatory practice as an issue, which may indicate that the staff intention expressed in 15 has not been heard.

17  The comments on personal reaction to change focus on ambivalence, on circumstances under which change takes place, and on fear of not being in control of the change process.  All but one of the groups comment that they were so absorbed in the expectations task that they gave little time or attention to this aspect of the brief.

18  Staff then suggest that ground rules for the group be established, and write them on a flip-chart.  The issues mentioned by B., and immediately written up include honesty, freedom to make mistakes, owning own feelings, (in particular by using the pronoun "I" when expressing views and feelings), preparedness to engage with feelings, and not intellectualising.  Members also make some suggestions, including confidentiality provisions in relation to personal material, no "right-onness" (meaning attempts to get one up on other members with normative sentiments), and maintenance of time boundaries.  Since these are proposed by the membership, they are regarded as open to debate and are not automatically written up by B.  

19  Members are then asked to discuss how they feel about talking about race issues: feelings expressed include guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear of putting one's foot in it, paralysis, anger and entrenchment of position, and a general agreement that such feelings constitute a block to learning.  Despite encouragement by the tutors, all the feelings expressed are negative.

20  Lunch break: informally, members spoken to are expressing disappointment about the nature of the course because this is not what they came for, but are prepared to see what happens next.

21  After lunch, tutors invite feedback on the morning session, and some of the disappointment is voiced, together with concern about the "ejection" issues and the question about whether the course is really "safe".

22  B. then introduces an exercise on the definition of three terms: prejudice, discrimination and racism, carried out in plenary session.  The exercise is carried out on the basis of "guess what I'm thinking" questions, which clearly have expected answers.  Only the expected answers are written up on the flip chart:

23  Difficulty is experienced by some members in formulating a meaning for "racism", and the female black staff member asks for a definition of "race".  The researcher volunteers a definition of race as a mythic artefact consequent on racist power relationships.  There is a misunderstanding of the use of the term "myth", and it appears that the researcher is being heard to declare that race does not exist.

24  A. joins in at this point and tells the group that he will have to conduct a "lesson" (his term), on origins of the term "race":

25  A. then introduces a "very powerful model", which will explore the nature of the relationship between white and black people, at all levels of analysis.

25.1  On the flip chart he draws two squares: on in the top right hand corner labelled "White", and the other in the bottom left labelled "Black".

26  At 3.45 (45 minutes after schedule: lunch was 15 minutes late) we are released for a tea break.  Group with whom researcher sits are very angry.  This is not what they came for, they say: we have almost reached the end of the first day, and NVQ has hardly been mentioned.  After tea the staff invite reactions: there are a number of angry responses.  

27  Without naming any individual, A. then says that some of the comments have been racist, and they have constituted a rejection of the model put forward.  He then says he has not finished it, and can do so in ten minutes.

28  There are expressions of insight by some members and they leave at 5.00 pm giving the impression that they are rather more satisfied and feeling that they have got something out of the day, although it was not what they expected.

Day Two

29  At the beginning of the second day, F. is absent, but this is not commented upon by any of the staff, until asked (she is not well).

30  The session begins as a plenary group with a question from one of the women members about the position of women within the model which had been put forward.  A. repeats that women are in the "top box", and that even the most disadvantaged white user of social services is potentially more powerful than the most powerful professional member of the black group since the power structures are on the white side.

31  A. invites members to suggests alternatives to the model, which no one does.  He repeats that the material is copyright, and that there are no handouts since in his view it is preferable for members to have the model in their minds rather than in their (filing) drawers.

32  There follows an interlude of exploratory questions, in which a member seek to draw parallels between the model and global affairs.  A. then poses the question whether the members accept the model, and if so, is that acceptance intellectual or emotional?

33  A. continues to press other members to speak.  He says that he needs to know where everyone stands before he can move on, because otherwise some members may get left behind.  He poses three positions in the model where members may take their stand:

34  Members respond to this by talking about the risk, challenge, flight and flight responses and despair which they see as involved in confronting racism.

35  A. points out that white people have the luxury of retreating from the struggle and denying it: black people do not have this choice.  In particular, he asserts that whenever white people emerge from the White box and venture into the arena of oppression and exploitation, but then get exhausted or de-moralised and retreat back to the White box, they do so at the cost of "squashing a black person's head".

36  He concludes that although there a number of different levels of awareness apparent within the group, we will "go for it".  

37  After coffee the members re-convene, bringing with them evidence of the work in their groups on flip charts.  In most cases the reported activity surrounds the implementation of equal opportunities policies.

38  B. asks the membership, "How did you feel?"

39  A. confirms that to work in Oppression and Exploitation requires emotional investment and energy.  It means taking risks, which may result in a "change of career direction".  A. goes on to enquire whether the current discussion is intellectual or emotional.

40  At this point A. addresses the researcher about the notes he is writing.  He appears to accepts the answer that the notes are in connection with research into the behaviour and feelings of learners when their ideas are turned upside down.

41  A. shares his suspicion that 90% of the discussion is at an intellectual level, and that there is a degree of disengagement at the emotional level.  There is an unconscious desire to maintain the status quo.

42  A. indicates that he has to leave, because he has to catch a plane to go on holiday.  However, he agrees to stay for the first part of the afternoon session.

43  At this point the course adjourns for lunch and re convenes at 2pm.

44  Asked to give their reactions, members talk of their impatience and anxiety about the course so far, and question whether the issues could not have been addressed more effectively and more quickly.

45  B. responds that the speed with which things are done all depends on the group, thus making members feel (as their subsequent comments in breaks reveal) that it is all their fault and that they are being told that if they were better students they would have moved on to what they wish to discuss by now.

46  A. sets up a "challenging" exercise.  He suggests that the group represents a continuum of response to the model, from those more fully accepting it to those less fully doing so.

47  The group fails to complete the exercise.  

48  In discussion of the group's failure after the half hour is up:

49  It is further suggested by A. that the degree of acceptance of the model represented by the group is extremely limited anyway.  The amount of variation is in the region of 0% to �%.

50  After the tea break, the members are asked whether they wish to go on with the exercise, with assistance from the staff group, or whether they wish to drop it and go on to something else which will be small group discussion of the application of their learning so far to their work situation.

Day Three

51  On the morning of the final day, three staff members (B. C. and D.) remain.  B. opens the session with the now traditional question as to how people are feeling.

52  The researcher tests out a hypothesis about the extent to which situational resistance, originating from the failure of the staff group to contain the feelings engendered, has compounded the ulterior resistance which members have experienced in encountering the issues.

53  There follows a discussion about whether it is worth staying for the rest of the programme.

54  All members having made the decision to stay, B. offers the choice of further work on feelings, or a move on to issues of application.

55  The member who undertook the assessment on the previous day joins in the discussion for the first time at this point: she endorses the earlier comment about mixed messages and the issue being clouded, and adds that there had been no opportunity to de role and reflect on the experience.  The group members had spontaneously re arranged themselves after the exercise and were now sitting in their habitual positions.

56  At this point one of the group members (S.) is in tears (the researcher did not notice at what point this started).  

57  A member (who had previously hardly said anything in the plenary session) placed at the "bottom" end of the continuum expresses his anger at his placing, and the arbitrariness of the criteria used to place him there, but most particularly at the fact that there was no right of appeal, and no support from the staff or encouragement to reflect on and learn from the experience.  He would have been left very depressed indeed had it not been for a meal shared with other members that evening.  He concludes, "If I treated my staff the way you have treated me, I wouldn't have any staff left, never mind black staff!"

58  B. indicates that the continuum was merely relative, which prompts S. (the crying member) to retort that it was a continuum from 0   �%   "that's all.  I've nothing left.  I feel completely wiped out.  If you're saying black people feel like I feel it hurts like hell."

59  B. recommends an article on "Black Pain, White Hurt".

60  Another member says that she feels awful, depressed and hopeless and guilty.  The group asks how they can help her, and a member suggests that they can only relieve that burden by taking back that part of it which belongs to them as individuals, rather than putting it all on her.  (Outside the session, the member in question later confirms that she found this helpful).

61  A member complains that the entire programme has been gratuitously emotional, and that the fact that this had not been made clear in the original material could well have meant that some members, particularly anyone who had been recently bereaved, for example, could have been seriously disturbed by the whole experience.

62  C. comments that feelings are often greater triggers for change than anything else.  To which a member retorts that they can also present blocks which hinder change.

63  A member asks for some hope.  If, as A. had indicated, our understanding and acceptance was at the 0   �% level, where did the staff stand?  

64  The member who had earlier referred to the need for a context says that he is confused about the source of all the feelings which are going around.  He needs to know what to attribute to:

and to sort them out.  Another member identifies with these sentiments.  The previous day he was helpless and paralysed, and felt, "What point is there to it all, if �% is all that I can achieve?"

65  B. suggests small groups to look at feelings when working in Oppression and Exploitation, and then moving on to the other items on the agenda.

66  After a brief session in the small groups and a coffee break, the course resumes examining assessment procedures in NVQ.


After the course (February 1991), the organising body (CCETSW) circulated a letter to all participants commenting on the number of formal complaints received about it, and the previous similar course run by the same agency.  A meeting had been called to discuss the complaints with the tutors, and a further "briefing day" more directly addressing the NVQ issues was promised if there was sufficient demand.

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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