National vocational qualifications are to be relaunched this spring in an effort to persuade sceptical employers and educators they can meet the needs of Britain's workforce.
A wider range of assessment methods will be permitted, letting thousands of non-NVQ qualifications into the fold. But they will be subject to tougher external scrutiny under criteria to be spelled out by the new Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority (QNCA).
A model for the revamped NVQ is expected from the Department for Education and Employment in March. Reformed programmes of workplace study and assessment should be in place by next spring, for nationwide introduction in the autumn of 1998.
Despite repeated ministerial assurances that NVQs are working, the workplace qualifications have been dogged by criticisms of unfair assessment methods, of trainees being passed despite not completing the necessary assessments, and of inconsistent assessment standards among awarding bodies.
The QNCA will be expected to come up with criteria to ensure high quality and consistent assessment standards among awarding bodies. The number of awarding bodies is likely to be cut to no more than two.
Ministers are also understood to concede that the range of "competence" tests are currently too narrow to assess skills for the modern workplace. The first stage of the relaunch through the DFEE will spell out arrangements for improving existing qualifications.
The stress is certain to be on tougher external assessment with more rigour and external standardised tests to ensure consistent standards across industries.
But ministers are understood to accept that some widening of the criteria governing NVQs is needed.
Many employers and colleges have voted with their feet. After 10 years only 2.5 per of the workforce have NVQs. Colleges have a virtual monopoly of NVQ training in some areas, even though it is supposed to be based in the workplace. Such areas include hairdressing, some engineering, care studies, business and administration and catering. Often this is because colleges are the largest employer, such as Oaklands College in Hertfordshire.
In addition, the colleges offer 16,000 courses and awards outside the NVQ framework, two-thirds of their work.
The Associatio n of Colleges has been sharply critical of the powers the QNCA will gain under the Education Bill. It was concerned that they would be used to cut back on courses not in the traditional mould.
Judith Norrington, AOC curriculum director, said she was still sceptical of the planned reforms. "It depends whether the new QNCA criteria are inclusive, bringing everything in, or whether ministers and civil servants fight to take everything under the NVQ labels by excluding courses which do not fit."
Ministers are understood to be considering a middle path. The wider range of assessment methods which are likely to prove acceptable under the new NVQ regime include some workplace simulations, provided they come within the new assessment criteria to be laid down by the QNCA.
Simulated work experience and training in college-based "workplaces" such as restaurants is increasingly used - often by employers buying into college courses ranging from office studies to catering and construction.
In their responses to the Government-commissione d Beaumont review of NVQs last year, many college managers criticised the National Council for Vocational Qualifications for excluding their qualification s by imposing too narrow a range of assessment criteria.
Some employers - such as a group of burglar alarm manufacturers - registered their objections to the narrowness of NVQs by drafting and awarding their own qualifications without seeking NVQ approval. They supported competence testing but objected to the narrow official interpretation.
Industry training organisations, set up to represent the interests of an industry sector, would define the range of skills needed for a job, as they do at present. But there is expected to be a clearer distinction between the lead bodies who lay down what skills are needed, the training bodies and the awarding bodies. In some trades one body carries out all three tasks.