Ministers have repeatedly argued that post-16 education and training reforms are top of the political agenda. With the A-level in an unassailable position, it is the reform of vocational and workplace training that will turn around the nation's fortunes, they say. Revised national targets for education and training last autumn signalled the Government's intention to secure Britain's industrial competitiveness for the 21st century through improved standards for all.
Two inquiries were commissioned (apart from Sir Ron Dearing's 16-19 review) to set the markers for excellence in workplace and non-academic training for once and for all.
But what has happened to them? The first, led by Exeter College principal Dr John Capey, into general national vocational qualifications was published (or rather buried) before Christmas, bogged down in lengthy consultations with barely a murmur of approval or dissent from ministers.
Gordon Beaumont's inquiry into standards in the top 100 national vocational qualifications was published this week (FE Focus - page 26). Does it spell out what is needed? He insists there is majority support among employers for the concept of NVQs. But, after that, the search for a consensus over the value of the eight-year-old workplace qualification gets shaky. Mr Beaumont admits: "They (NVQs) have been trying to please everyone but have ended up pleasing no-one." Some employers find them too narrow, focusing on specific job competences at the expense of broader skills and flexible capabilities. Others argue exactly the opposite.
Did we need Mr Beaumont to tell us that small companies cannot afford broad-based training in costly transferable skills? That the NVQ language is at best arcane, at worst incompetent? That NVQs are crippled by bureaucracy? That assessment methods need a thorough review?
The Government's own commissioned review by the Institute of Employment Studies summed up the regrettable state of affairs: the more employers know about NVQs, the less they like them. The National Council for Vocational Qualifications must surely be alarmed that only one fifth of the 5,000 employers surveyed for Beaumont bothered to reply.
But who is to blame? Why is the Government obsessed with review after review, looking at the plight of the training schemes for which it is wholly responsible, but never willing to act on the solutions offered?
The biggest winter freeze for 10 years brought home the absurdities of our training for work. The number of plumbers' apprenticeships with college release has dropped by 80 per cent. We are assured, however, that this is more than compensated for by NVQ training on the job. But most of these plumbers were made redundant during the recession. No-one with broader flexible skills was available to replace them.
There are solutions for ministers, in a combination of the Beaumont and Capey recommendations. All the evidence suggests that we are about two thirds of the way there with NVQs and GNVQs. Restore apprenticeships for all - rather than the "Modern" few - with properly-funded college-based programmes for broader education and core skills training, jointly funded by Government and employers. Leave workplace training to the employers. Huge savings from axing the unwieldy bureaucracy inherent in the current assessment schemes would help.
As Beaumont says, adapting GNVQs to fit the NVQ pattern is not the answer. They are broader alternatives to A-levels rather than to NVQs - Dearing territory. Capey's recommendations, including more external testing, and similar proposals from Beaumont for NVQs would bring them closer together. The NVQ Part I proposed by Beaumont could also offer a real third option for school-leavers without damaging the integrity of NVQs as a workplace qualification.
Employers will always bleat about training. It is not enough for ministers to remonstrate and implore. They have called for the reviews and now they must act.