Britain has no hope of achieving the education and training targets necessary to sustain its international competitiveness, according to the most extensive research carried out so far into student participation and completion rates.
A report on the research by the London University Institute of Education and the University of Warwick's Centre for Education suggests that the Government set off on the wrong foot to reform the post-16 and adult curriculum and exams.
The obsession with the A-level gold standard and ill-founded assumptions that modular courses tested by coursework were less challenging or stimulating than final exam courses had taken Britain down the wrong road for more than a decade.
The report was published just days after the highly embarrassing leak of the Government's forthcoming paper on lifelong learning. In it, Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, admitted that the country was on course to miss the targets (see below).
Ken Spours, research officer at the Institute of Education and co-author of the report, Learning for the Future, said there was no chance of meeting the central aim of getting 60 per cent of young people to A-level or equivalent (NVQ level 3) by the year 2000.
"With just five years to go we have 41.5 per cent achieving level 3 and this year we expect no growth in attainment," he said."It is clear that we will miss the national targets by a mile and are unlikely to even reach 50 per cent. "
The picture at level 2 (GCSE equivalent) is similar. Attainment increased by 2.1 per cent last year and 0.3 per cent this year. Zero growth is expected in 1996. To even reach the national targets there would have to be increase of at least 3 per cent a year until the end of the century.
One of the main reasons for the bleak prospect is the slowing down in stay-on rates in full-time education post-16. Colleges have also seen a slump in employers taking up day and block-release courses for their staff.
While the Confederation of British Industry insists that companies have sustained levels of spending on training, it is increasingly apparent that this goes on in-house needs, not necessarily giving employees the flexibility and range of skills needed for adaptability.
The research shows that the participation rates post-16 peaked this year at around 300,000. While student numbers entering further education have risen substantially over the past two years, this growth is now slowing down.
Those who are neither involved in education or training are increasingly difficult and much more expensive to reach, the research shows, supporting the view of colleges and training and enterprise councils that a significant cash boost was needed in this week's autumn budget.
The research also points to fundamental weaknesses in the secondary and further education curriculum. "A-levels are bad for those who take them and disastrous for those who don't," says Mr Spours.
"Reduced coursework on A-levels has affected attainment. If we had higher levels of coursework and more modular A-levels, then we would have had a better success rate."
Here he echoes the concerns of leading players in education and industry who warned more than three years ago that John Major's refusal to confront the Tory Right - who saw coursework as an evil - was a major setback and guaranteed to demotivate middle-ability students.
An equally depressing picture emerges from his research into NVQs and general national vocational qualifications. While GNVQs offered the coursework option, the unwieldy bureaucracy and other problems led to a 55 per cent drop-out rate.
Nor was the work-based route offering a credible alternative as far as the national targets went. Less than one-third (32 per cent) of youth trainees gained any qualifications last year. Of these, only one fifth (20 per cent) made level 3.
LIFETIME LEARNING TARGETS
* 60 per cent of workforce to be qualified to NVQ Level 3, Advanced GNVQ or 2 GCE A-Level standard
* 30 per cent of the workforce to have a vocational, professional, management or academic qualification at NVQ level 4 or above
* 70 per cent of all organisations employing 200 or more employees and 35 per cent of those employing 50 or more to be recognised as Investors in People
* 40 per cent of the workforce have achieved this standard
* 23 per cent of the workforce have achieved this standard
* 8 per cent of organisations employing 200 or more employees and 5 per cent of those employing 50 or more are Investors in People
Source: National Adisory Council for Education and TrainingDFEE