Common Sources of Error Whilst Assessing NVQ or SVQ Candidates in Social Care

When working as an assessor in social care two of the values we apply in the assessment process are fairness and consistency. However errors and subjective views can and do occur at any stage of the process.

When assessing the candidate’s competence, as they work through the Health and Social Care NVQ or SVQ, it is important to be conscious of the common types of error so that you can guard against committing one of these errors yourself.

If you are new to assessing you could also feel a pressure to decide every candidate you assess is competent otherwise it reflects badly on you. This is not the case. We need to have good practice in health and social care services. There is a certain standard of competence that has to be reached. It is in applying this standard that the fairness and consistency are so important.

Some of the most common errors are as follows.

First Impressions

This involves a Social Care NVQ or SVQ assessor ‘taking a liking’ to a candidate (or the opposite) and on the basis of this first or early contact viewing the candidate’s performance more or less favourably than should be the case.

If you imagine a candidate who is warm and welcoming when you first meet him/her you can also imagine how difficult it is to be objective, especially if being objective means perhaps jeopardising that warmth.

Halo/Horns Effect

The ‘Halo’ effect involves assessors inferring good social care practice on the part of a candidate on the basis of previous good performance by that candidate, without him/her actually being required to demonstrate the performance to the current standard. The previous performance may not have been associated with the criteria now being assessed.

The ‘Horns’ effect is similar to the halo effect, only the opposite. On the basis of previous ‘not-competent’ performance by the candidate an expectation exists that future performances will also be ‘not-competent’.

Instead of waiting for the performance, the assessor infers (probably wrongly) that these future performances will be ‘not-competent’.

Similar to Me

This involves judging a candidate favourably because they carry out a piece of work like we would or have values which are just like ours. ‘Ours’ may be the wrong way or not the required way!! It is also important to remember that there are often many ways of carrying out a task. Just because a candidate does something in a different way doesn’t mean they are not competent


Stereotyping is always dangerous and directly contravenes the professional value base. In relation to assessment, stereotyping can occur in terms of assuming a certain level of competence (or lack of competence) based on an apparent characteristic of a candidate. An example would be an expectation that a young person might not be expected to be competent in assisting a bereaved person, on the grounds that they don’t have sufficient ‘experience of life’.

It is not only the assumption itself which is dangerous, but also the way in which it might lead an assessor to look for certain pieces of evidence.

Remember: whenever we assume it makes an ASS out of U & ME

Contrast Effects

This arises when one candidate’s performance is compared to that of another candidate by an assessor. The inferior performance may then be deemed not competent, no matter how it stands compared to the performance criteria and evidence requirements. Social care NVQ and SVQ Candidates must be assessed against criteria, not against each other.

Experimenter Effect

If you’re not normally around the candidate whilst they are working, then your observing him/her will possibly intimidate the candidate – your presence influences the performance. We all do strange things when we are intimidated! This may also have an effect on the way others involved in the observation (eg: service users, colleagues of the candidate) act. This can also affect the candidate’s performance. One way to check that the experimenter effect hasn’t been an issue is to ask the candidate after an observation “Did anything surprise you?”

The Assessment Process in Health and Social Care

These are just some of the errors that can arise in the assessment process. To support assessors and help them to gain insight and knowledge about the assessment process, the book Improving Assessment Practice by Siobhan Maclean is available from Kirwin Maclean Associates at a cost of £10. This is a comprehensive guide to the assessment process and has been commented on for its accessibility and realism. Siobhan Maclean continues to assess NVQ candidates in Health and Social Care which has enabled her to write this applied and useful book.

Assessors who work in Scotland can buy the book Developing SVQ Assessment Skills which is also written by Siobhan Maclean and costs £10.

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