Invisible effort for industry
The National Council for Vocational Qualifications was launched in 1987 to shake up work-related training and drive a bulldozer through the jungle of 16,000 different qualifications.
Sixteen years on, far from thinning out the forests, there are now an astonishing 85,669 qualifications on the Learning and Skills Council database.
When the unloved national council - now part of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - reported an inexorable rise towards 25,000, another solution was mooted. And after considerable political and bureaucratic dithering, the national qualifications framework (NQF) was conceived.
Research by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) suggests, however, that the framework has only made things worse. More than half the adult work funded by the LSC is outside its remit. But why?
The agency is exploring the reasons. But a paper to be published at its summer conference in London next week offers a pretty unequivocal explanation.
It says: "Initial explanations from the colleges relate to appropriateness of provision, and the desire to meet the needs of employers and reach non-traditional learners."
In other words, the national framework is largely inappropriate and colleges are seeking other ways to meet employer and individual needs.
This does not chime with all the opprobrium poured on colleges by critics, including Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, for allegedly neither creating close working relations with local employers nor giving adequate "life chances" to many students.
There is more evidence from the LSDA to challenge the traditional view of ineffective college-employer links. Research papers entitled A Basis for Skills, to be published at the conference, reveals extensive college-based research and development work to support industry.
Around four in 10 colleges responding to a survey gave evidence of sophisticated support for local companies. Bishop Auckland College helped develop the Digital Factory to give small companies access to leading-edge software.
Cornwall College developed an organic demonstration farm to give local industry facilities for market trials and development work, and Norwich College has a research centre which helps local and national voluntary organisations assess their effectiveness.
The evidence also corroborates the Association of Colleges' research for its campaign, Colleges at the Heart of Business, showing that member institutions provide 200 million days of training to industry each year.
For Chris Hughes, chief executive of the LSDA, two papers in the the agency's conference pack are particularly telling.
"One refers to the need for more customised qualifications for employers.
We have to get these employer skills and qualifications inside our national framework,"he said.
Colleges felt frustrated that they were not getting the credit for all they were doing, he said. The Government needed to address this in the Skills Strategy White Paper later this month.
His vision is simple: "Let the colleges do it with the employers. Let them agree their training and qualification needs locally and have that inspected within a freer, less-prescriptive national quality framework. We need more flexibility and less central control over the precise content."
Echoing the research findings of his agency, he added: "A single national qualifications framework might not be appropriate."
Indeed, his researchers warn that "it may perpetuate the current position where customers and awards proliferate outside the framework".
A second LSDA paper, Investigating Intermediate Skills, has profound implications for the Government's entire skills strategy and supports Mr Hughes's notion of more flexibility.
Skills needed by employers are increasingly a mix of old and new ones and cannot simply be sorted into the five neat levels of the national framework, it says. If this is the case, it makes a nonsense of plans to target free tuition at, say, all adults without level 2 (GCSE-equivalent).
Such skills vary from one occupation to another and cannot be contained in a single qualification. The use of the term "intermediate skill" is of limited value in making education and training policy, the LSDA paper argues.
What Mr Hughes envisages is radical, he admits. Colleges would become accrediting bodies akin to degree-awarding universities.
"This is not yet distilled into an LSDA recommendation. I am running ahead of our main body of work," he said.
But action was urgently needed to change the relationship between colleges and employers, and to give local scope for purpose-made qualifications that had national clout for when an individual moved jobs.
The central problem with the NQF was not so much the proliferation of 86,000 entries. This arose partly because the slightest change to the content of a course required it to be registered separately - an unnecessary bureaucratic burden.
The real problems arose from the cumbersome nature of the framework, the agency's work shows. The length and complexity of the current accreditation system was too slow to respond to the needs of employers.
There was unnecessary need to demonstrate "sufficient demand". Skills at the leading edge of technology missed out on qualifications. And if courses involved more than one employment sector, considerable time was then spent approving them.
"The colleges really will be able to treat employers as clients - a major challenge at the heart of the employer engagement debate," he said.