Steve Hook reports
The qualifications regime, which labels thousands of Modern Apprenticeship drop-outs as failures, could be swept aside in five years.
Ministers have "turned the gas up" on the reform of vocational qualifications by asking for the plans for a unit-based framework to be submitted by the end of March next year.
And Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, says MAs will be a high priority as he works with employers, the Learning and Skills Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the sweeping changes which have now been given full ministerial approval.
Under the new approach, "units" - bite-sized chunks of learning which can be collected towards a full qualification - will be accredited individually.
Mr Boston said the March deadline, requested by Ivan Lewis, the adult skills and young people's minister, gives fresh impetus to his work on the new qualifications framework, which was originally expected to take at least until November next year.
In a letter to the QCA, Mr Lewis said: "The skills strategy recognises that assigning a credit value to the full range of existing units in the national qualifications framework represents a formidable task."
One of the challenges will be getting the awarding bodies to agree what amount of credits should be given for individual units of learning so they can win mutual recognition and become transferable.
Mr Boston said: "They have turned the gas up on delivery. Before, we would have expected to be reporting back in, say, 12 to 15 months' time from now."
The deadline for implementation of the unitised qualifications themselves remains 2007-10, when they should exist in most industry sectors.
The Modern Apprenticeship programme has only a 35 per cent success rate according to the LSC, and much of this is down to the high drop-out rate, with many MAs failing to complete their three-year programmes of work and college-based training.
It is a problem which goes to the heart of what Mr Boston is trying to achieve - a more flexible qualification system which accepts the reality of a mobile workforce.
Under the QCA's proposals, apprentices and other vocational students will be able to bank their achievements in the form of units towards a qualification, allowing them to work in a more flexible way towards their aims.
Mr Boston said: "At the moment, if they decide not to complete the qualification they walk away with nothing.
"Under these proposals, they will have some currency for what they have achieved as long as their assessments have all been positive."
The plans for MAs are welcomed by David Sherlock, head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, which has been critical of the scheme's poor record on retention.
But he said success will depend on a central database which follows the progress of students.
He said: "You have got to live in the real world and it may be that someone goes on to get a better job and continues training in that job.
"But we need a national registration scheme which checks what they are doing. Then we will have a 21st-century education and training system."