The UK qualifications system is the focus of a national debate this week. Ivan Lewis (left), the minister responsible, talks to Ian Nash
The biggest-ever national debate on the skills crisis began this week with Ivan Lewis, the learning and skills minister, pledging a raft of measures including a White Paper on vocational qualifications by June.
Tougher rules on the funding of adult learning will follow, with government cash targeted at the least skilled. There will be new measures to support employer engagement in staff training, with particular emphasis on helping small-to-medium enterprises.
June will also see the relaunch of the ill-fated Individual Learning Accounts. This time they will be more tightly regulated and aimed at tackling adult basic skills shortages. They will help the Government's commitment to give an extra 1 million people the level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) skills needed to escape the spiral of poor education, unemployment and poverty.
A joint consultation paper and review of adult learning will be published this summer, involving four government departments: Education and Skills, Work and Pensions, Trade and Industry and the Treasury. Moreover, all departments must do a skills audit, Mr Lewis told The TES, to chart influences such as how lifelong learning improves health and independence.
Considerable evidence to support a new approach was published this week at the Government's national skills strategy conference in London. It outlined new funding ideas for adult learning, evidence for a new skills strategy and progress on pilot work already completed.
The Learning and Skills Council also launched the Great Skills Debate, including local and regional consultations.
Mr Lewis completed a national skills summit this month, consulting employers, individuals and training providers across the regions. These findings, plus a series of pilots under the LSC, will be used to shape policy on employer engagement, employee training and reforms to make vocational qualifications more flexible and relevant to different industry sectors.
New incentives to encourage people on benefits back into training will be unveiled. "We are talking about those close to the labour market but not in it," he said.
Incentives for employers - such as wage reimbursement where staff are released for training - will also be analysed.
But there will be no giveaways, he warned. "There is significant spending on the LSC, regional development agencies and sector skills councils. We have to make hard decisions about where to put our money. We also need to know what we can legitimately ask of individuals and employers. They have a responsibility to invest in education and training and the right to a system that best meets their needs."
Although Mr Lewis would make no pre-emptive announcements, the preferred policies are becoming clearer. For example, the Government is likely to give every adult the right to free tuition up to their "first" level 2 (GCSE equivalent) qualification. Research evidence indicates that this is the trigger to motivate people to move to level 3 - where benefits kick in - giving companies more skills, and employees higher wages.
But it is expected to be at the cost of further subsidies, which are seen to benefit the middle classes opting for courses such as Spanish tourism.
Other measures to increase spending efficiency include the "pooling" of budgets for adult learning. "It is ludicrous that the regional development agencies and local learning and skills councils are spending separate money on skills in a completely incoherent way," he said. Pilot work on collaboration is already under way.
But it is in the realm of vocational qualifications and accreditation that change will come swiftest. Despite efforts over 20 years to hack back the jungle of 16,000 qualifications, they continue to proliferate. It is a problem that commentators such as Hilary Steedman, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, say "contribute to their low esteem".
It also causes confusion for school pupils as young as 13 as they address career choices. The various qualifications frameworks offer at least 2,650 specifications for qualifications from GCSE, A-level and BTEC to NVQs and key skills, leading to utter confusion. Mr Lewis said: "It is clear that employers have serious concerns about qualifications. That is why we have given the LSC, Sector Skills Development Agency (SSDA) and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) the remit of producing a user-friendly framework.
"They are reporting to me this month and there will be a White Paper in June. We are determined to give flexibility around the needs of employers."
While the Tomlinson Review has been set up to look at A-level reforms and a possible baccalaureate over five to 10 years, there was a separate and more urgent need to reform vocational qualifications.
The issues are discussed elsewhere in this TES special report, but Mr Lewis made it clear that new emphasis will be put on options for employers and staff to pursue "partial" qualifications that build up to a nationally recognised qualification.
"There are root-and-branch reforms being considered. It is the first time the QCA, LSC and SSDA have worked together in this way and following what they tell me, we will publish a radical approach in June."
But he promised that change would be manageable and costed. "We need to tackle the weaknesses but we do not want to throw the system into chaos," he said.
Other changes under consideration include a new role for banks and other financial agencies in supporting skills training and "the use of the supply chain to drive up skills". An example is that operated by Sainsbury's, which makes sure its staff are trained and require supply companies to do the same. Further government cash incentives are likely to support this.
"The Government's skills strategy will not just be a structure but a delivery plan as well. We will deal with every issue people tell us needs addressing. They may not like the solutions but we will not duck them."