Ministers hope proposed tighter rules on which awards qualify for public funding will put an end to widespread scepticism over the quality and relevance of many courses.
Toughened criteria are aimed at ending the proliferation of minority awards geared only to specific employers and of courses - particularly some in crafts and sport - which are widely perceived to be recreational rather than vocational. Public funding of courses in subjects such as windsurfing and skiing has attracted strong criticism.
The proposals, however, have been widely condemned by awarding bodies likely to be affected. Sports governing bodies claimed that axing funding for coaching qualifications would severely hit sport just as the Government is trying to boost Britain's performance. Other awarding bodies claimed qualifications with real work relevance could vanish as "the baby was thrown out with the bathwater".
Vocational qualifications generally are seen as badly needing improved credibility in the wake of a host of critical reports suggesting inconsistency and lack of rigour. Awards are duplicated in some areas, while many qualifications have a tiny or nil take-up rate.
In his review of 16-19 qualifications, out last March, Sir Ron Dearing pointed to the need to untangle Britain's "maze" of 16,000 qualifications and align them in one coherent structure - a national awards framework.
Ministers are now having to rescue a situation exacerbated by earlier policies. The launch of the national targets for education and training and the way further education colleges are funded both centre on qualifications. Colleges have been pressurised to expand student numbers, often offering precisely the sports coaching and other awards now in the firing line.
The Department for Education and Employment this week issued a consultation document on revised criteria for funding approval for vocational qualifications. The criteria apply to awards other than the Government's flagship NVQs and general national vocational qualifications (GNVQs), which automatically qualify for funding.
In the past, awarding bodies freely admit they had to do no more than inform the DFEE of the name of a new course before it was added to the list of those approved.
Under the proposed new rules, which will be applied to current qualifications as well as new ones, the awarding bodies will have to go to far greater lengths to prove the usefulness of qualifications in the workplace. They will have to supply the DFEE with evidence of market demand for each course from further education colleges, employers and individuals, and show they are supported by industry lead bodies.
Those criteria will be particularly vigorously applied to "qualifications which do not appear to be primarily serving employment needs, but generally satisfy leisure-time occupation".
Qualifications will also have to pass a new test - demonstrating how they contribute to the national training and education targets. Britain is still a long way from the targets, set for 2000, which have already been outstripped by some of our European counterparts.
The revised rules would put an end to approval for any qualifications specific to individual employers in a move aimed at ensuring anyone taking a vocational course will gain a transferable skill for use in a variety of jobs within their sector.
The new criteria also aim to limit the risk of lax standards arising when the same body both awards and provides training in a particular qualification. To avoid conflict of interest, "robust measures" will be needed to check quality control, says the consultation paper.
The change will hit organisations such as sports governing bodies who frequently train students in their own coaching qualifications.
The sports umbrella body, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, said that squeezing coaching awards off the funding list could mean thousands of volunteers would no longer be able to learn to train future athletes. CCPR technical director Chris Earle said: "If that happens, then the whole of sport will be at risk just when the Government is trying to promote it."