A report this week by Peter Robinson of the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance says only 660,000 (2 per cent) of the workforce are involved in national vocational qualifications.
"I have to conclude that NVQs are a bit of a damp squib. They have not revolutionised workplace training as intended," he told The TES. They had failed to build new opportunities and had replaced existing qualifications with more bureaucratic new ones.
Ministers say this is nonsense. The number of people doing NVQs is nearer 2 million (5.5 per cent), they say. The National Council for Vocational Qualifications goes a step further, putting the figure at over 7 per cent. Its chief executive, John Hillier, said that more than 1 million are doing NVQs who have not officially registered.
"We welcome debate about all aspects of vocational qualifications when it is informed and relevant," Mr Hillier said. "Unfortunately, Peter Robinson's report is liable to cause more confusion than clarification."
Mr Robinson conceded that the Government's calculations may be nearer the mark, drawing their figures from the latest official Labour Force Survey not available to him at the time of the research. Mr Hillier's point about the total doing NVQs without registering can only be guesswork.
Where do all these "facts" stand beside the Government's original insistence that 50 per cent of the workforce should have been working towards NVQs by now if the country was to remain competitive? The target was dropped two years ago when ministers knew it was a hopeless goal.
Mr Hillier came closest to answering why the 1986 Government pledge of a training revolution has yet to happen. Defending his record on BBC2's The Money Programme this week, he said: "I think it is because no one realised just what a large undertaking it was to turn around processes by which people are educated and trained in this country."
But it is also about a political will for change and a more constructive attitude to who is trained and for what, said Mr Robinson.
His analysis suggests that NVQs have become a low-level training route to low-paid jobs for women, minorities and young people on Government job schemes. Regardless of whether it is 2 per cent or 7 per cent of the workforce taking NVQs, there is a deeper problem, he insisted.
"The significance of the low numbers of NVQs being taken would be reduced if those that were being taken were concentrated at higher levels and were distributed evenly across industries and occupations," he said.
Instead, they are mainly in clerical, secretarial, personal services and sales occupations. "These are lower-paid jobs where a large part of the workforce is women.
"They [NVQs] are under-represented in better-paid, higher managerial, technical, professional and craft jobs. These are taken largely by men who do not see NVQs as a suitable way of training." There are also few NVQs in the "internationally exposed" areas of manufacturing, business and finance, sectors of the economy where Governments should be most aware of the threat to Britain's competitiveness, he said.
Between 1991 and 1995, the only net growth in the number of all vocational qualifications was at levels 1 and 2 (GCSE equivalent). "But these do not count towards the national targets for education and training," said Mr Robinson. "There was no growth at all in the number of awards at level 3 [A-level] and a slight fall in the number of awards at levels 4 and 5 [higher education]. "
Furthermore, the economic cycle and recession influenced the amount of training companies gave employees far more than the availability of NVQs. Indeed, there was a training slump in the biggest NVQ growth period, he said (see graphic, right).
A consensus is fast being reached among notable critics, including Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Studies at Brunel University, researchers at the Institute of Employment Studies at Sussex University and Professor Alison Wolf of the London University Institute of Education. The mistake, they say, was to make NVQs the centre of all vocational qualifications. This has strained the system, since they may not be fit for the purpose in every workplace.
Labour supports the industry-based training system and so do the Liberal Democrats. There is concern among the critics that they would adopt NVQs without the necessary critical reappraisal of analysis presented in studies such as the report on the top 100 NVQs by Gordon Beaumont, a former businessman.
The study of employer attitudes in that report is often quoted by the NCVQ as showing that nine out of 10 employers who offer them will continue to use them. But Mr Robinson insisted that there is a sleight of hand since "offering them is not the same as requiring staff to have them".
He shares the concern of virtually all the other critics that the sample size of responses to the Beaumont survey was far too small to be of significance.
However, like Sir Ron Dearing in his review of 16-19 qualifications, Mr Beaumont expressed concern over the lack of research into the impact of these qualifications. This alone must have cast doubts among many on the optimistic picture - which is the official one.
Rhetoric and Reality: Britain's New Vocational Qualifications, by Peter Robinson is available at Pounds 10 from The Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, London WC2A 2AE