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Creating access to certification: the role of the National Open College Network


The National Open College Network(NOCN)is one of the largest awarding bodies in the UK. It offers awards to adult learners, and in particular to those people for whom more traditional qualifications are inaccessible or inappropriate. Writing in the latest edition of Individual Learning News, Carole Stott, Chief Executive, National Open College Network describes the work of the Network.


Although the National Open College Network (NOCN) is now a recognised national Awarding Body, it is widely perceived and described as a 'movement'. This perception is accurate in many ways and it reflects the understanding of those who work with and in NOCN that it is much more than just an awarding body. The concept of a movement also accurately reflects the fact that those in NOCN share and bring to the awarding body function a distinctive and very particular set of aims, values and principles.

Access to Certification

The movement has come a long way since the establishment of the first accreditation Open College Network (OCN) in Manchester in 1981. Then, as now, the OCN sought to provide access to certification for adults for whom traditional qualifications were inaccessible, inappropriate or simply not available. The first Credit Certificates were issued to Basic Skills learners in socially deprived areas in Manchester.

At the same time networks were developing in Inner London focused on providing Access to Higher Education opportunities for adults under-represented in HE and without traditional entry qualifications. Other networks soon developed in major urban areas of Yorkshire, the North West, the Midlands and Wales. They varied considerably in the focus of their activities: some emphasising collaborative course development, others accreditation; some working exclusively on Access to HE, others emphasising Basic Skills and return to learn. However, they all shared a commitment to widen opportunities for learning, achievement and progression for adults who had previously been excluded from such opportunities.

Conscious Development

It was at a meeting at the Northern College in 1986 that these different networks first came together and began consciously to develop a national network with clearly articulated and shared aims, values and practices. By 1990 eleven networks came together to sign the first Credit Accumulation and Transfer (CATs) agreement on which NOCN's first constitution was based.

By 1994 NOCN had adopted the specifications of the National Credit Framework developed by the Further Education Unit (now FEDA) thereby incorporating an agreed concept and specification of units into its existing framework of credits and levels.

Awarding Body

The decision for NOCN to become an Awarding Body was taken in 1997, the aim being to secure wider recognition and equal status for the achievements of our learners: to further enhance opportunities for progression and to try to influence the development of a more inclusive qualifications structure. By the time the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) recognised its awarding body status within the new qualifications structure, FEFC data already revealed that NOCN was the largest single accreditation body for adult learning in England.

NOCN now has 29 networks across the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in 1998-9 it recorded over 630,000 learner registrations and awarded well over 1 million credits.


Throughout this period of massive change and growth NOCN has remained firmly committed to the aims and principles on which the original movement was founded. Its recently published Position Statement emphasises its four guiding principles: Equity, Entitlement, Empowerment and Inclusive Learning. Although the terminology may differ, these principles clearly re-affirm those of the 'Manifesto for OCNs' published in Manchester in 1983.

The commitment to the rights of all learners to a quality learning experience, to have their achievements recognised and valued; to have the opportunity to succeed, to be accorded equal esteem for their learning achievements, remain as strong as ever. And despite the complexities created by the diversity, range, variety and sheer volume of adults' learning needs, and the pressures towards simplified national provision, NOCN remains strongly committed to learning based on learners' needs, and the recognition of the role of learners and communities in determining what learning is of value. It continues to engage practitioners in its processes in order to ensure a match between the needs of learners, the curriculum and qualifications.

Staff Development

NOCN therefore works closely with providers and community organisations on curriculum development and it continues to provide staff development support for local centres. Throughout NOCN there are now over 105 field staff working with over 3000 centres in this way. The centres range from large FE colleges and Universities, to small voluntary organisations and employers. They include national organisations like the WEA and the TUC and small community organisations working with a specific group in a local district. All of these organisations have access to the support of their local OCN, many are members and participate in the governance of their OCN and all have access to the national network through their local organisation.

People from the centres working with their local OCN contribute a wealth and variety of skills and experience. Some have extensive experience of teaching and assessing in more formal learning contexts such as colleges and universities; others bring experience of working with communities in very informal settings. The local OCN can help not only to network and share these experiences and skills but can also facilitate the development of progression routes across provision in the different centres.

Basic Skills and Access

Learning accredited through NOCN continues to include large amounts of Basic Skills and Access to HE, although in a much wider range of learning contexts and settings than in the early 1980s. But the provision now extends to almost every subject and area of learning in which adults engage; from community action, citizenship, volunteering and employee development to work skills, arts and crafts and the internet - not to mention other more 'traditional' subjects and courses.

Local developments are strengthened by national initiatives including a major national project on accreditation for the voluntary sector; initiatives with the TUC, Unison, HM Prisons and WEA to name a few. All local and national developments are underpinned by robust and fit for purpose national quality assurance arrangements.


This year NOCN celebrates the 10th anniversary of the signing of the CATS agreement and the first move towards the development of a national organisation. The need for an organisation like NOCN remains as strong as ever and our commitment to serve that need remains equally strong.

For further information about the NOCN contact Carole Stott, Tel: 01332 622712 or e-mail [email protected].


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