Employers have been grumbling about the lack of them; colleges have been working overtime to provide them; while schools have obediently deferred to the national curriculum. The missing ingredient that has marred 16-19 qualifications over the past decade is core skills: communication, number and information technology. Paul Sokoloff, director of assessment at the new exam board Edexcel (formerly BTEC and London Examinations), comments: "Key skills are the glue that binds everything together."
Now it seems these skills - and others like teamwork and learning to learn - are to be taught and assessed as part of a new framework that will bring all existing 16-19 qualifications into line. The Department for Education and Employment and the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are piloting certification of the three key skills, and the consultation document "Qualifying for Success" is seeking views on how best to bridge the academic-vocational divide and map out pathways for lifelong learning.
Moves towards broadening the curriculum started in the mid-Eighties with BTEC's certificate in pre-vocational education and City and Guilds' diploma in vocational education, both aimed at schools; colleges were already getting on with the job. Now the hope is that an overarching framework of qualifications will link schools and colleges more closely, providing pathways through school, further education, higher education and into work.
The Government's aim to rationalise examination and awarding bodies and their syllabuses through mergers is well under way. Earlier this month, the UK's largest vocational awarding body, City and Guilds, merged with Association Examining Board and Northern Examinations and Assessment Board (NEAB), joining Edexcel and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), formerly SCOTVEC and the Scottish Exams Board. As rationalisation gathers pace, issues of regional identity emerge. Linked in with the NEAB, the Welsh Joint Education Committee will be affiliated to City and Guilds' new unitary awarding body, allowing it to continue to reflect important cultural differences as well as to offer exams in Welsh and English.
Meanwhile, Scotland has rejected calls to introduce a two-tier system - a baccalaureate and vocational certificate. With 80 per cent of young people staying on in education post-16, "twin tracking" has been ditched in favour of the Scottish Group Awards, a mix-and-match of modules drawing on Scotland's academic gold standard, the Highers and Advanced Highers as well as SCOTVEC's Scottish Vocational Qualifications. Key skills and qualifications certification will be grouped under broad areas such as science and maths, technology and care. Dr Dennis Gunning, SQA director of development, says: "We're not trying to bridge the vocationalacademic divide - we've abolished it!" Following on from Dearing, "Qualifying for Success" is directed at GNVQ, GCSE, A and AS levels and focuses on the 16-19 age group. The inclusion of GCSEs, though, and the fact that in certain craft subjects TECs and employers insist on NVQs rather than the broader-based GNVQs implies a much wider remit - 14-19 and beyond.
Ted Parker, principal of Barking College, believes that bringing qualifications into line would open up opportunities. "A-levels and GNVQs are an either or - students don't move between qualifications. But what might suit our students best would be a pick-and-mix approach - being able to pick up modules."
Nevertheless, Parker is scathing about the key skills provision in GNVQ and believes the BTEC national diploma serves vocationally oriented students well. "The ND is more popular in our college than GNVQs, which we believe have not managed to integrate key skills successfully."
Broadening the curriculum would help to foster links between colleges and local schools and to create routes into FE, HE and employment. GNVQs and NVQs outweigh other courses at Dearne Valley College, near Rotherham, which has teamed up with the local high school to offer vocational training for 14-16 year-olds opting out of GCSEs. Says principal Don Davidson: "An American-style, all-embracing FE diploma is something that should be seriously considered - in the long term. For the present, our link scheme helps pupils who are turned off by school. Vocational courses like our NVQ in construction are important to these youngsters - it makes what is taught in school seem relevant."
Perhaps where a new framework is most needed is to help tailor education to the individual. Better-designed qualifications would cut the drop-out rate and provide employability even if a student has switched courses. Mr Davidson says: "Training should not be so specific that skills that are acquired can't be applied to other subject areas."
Employers have mixed feelings. Mary Lord, director of training and education at TEC National Council, knows that employers place key skills certification at the top of the list for training and qualifications reform. But, she says, they want key skills integrated rather than a bolt-on extra and believe that certification should underpin students applying for HE as well as providing evidence of employability. "Key skills shouldn't be taught separately, " she says. "They need a work-based context and should be built into workplace experience or off-the-job training."
As an industry, computing is heavily committed to key skills. Gordon Ewan, of the Information Technology National Training Organisation, says: "Technology is romping ahead, but the development of key skills seems to be missing in the academic and the vocational routes." He believes the skills shortage is starting to be addressed by the take-up of modern apprenticeships - 2,000 in the IT industry to date.
On the other hand, craft-based industries attract trainees from a wide ability range and do not want to deter people from getting qualified just because they fall down on basic numeracy or literacy. The Construction Industry Training Board's thinking is that key skills should be assessed and certificated separately from the craft skill. Phil Ollier, the board's head of training standards, explains: "If you design assessments to include a verbal presentation or a written report, you can reflect key skills more accurately. "
Meanwhile, GNVQs have been getting their act together; GNVQ part one pilots recently received the thumbs-up from the Office for Standards in Education. Edexcel's Mr Sokoloff says: "At 14-16, key skills are already there in the national curriculum and we need to see how the GNVQ can enhance key stage 4 work."
But bedding GNVQs down into a framework alongside NVQs still poses problems. Mr Sokoloff says: "GNVQ is broad-based education and NVQ is job-specific training. It's disappointing that they have not been linked more closely. "