Constant tinkering with vocational qualifications and harking on about A-level gold standards has put a generation of young people off work-related education and training, research involving 1,300 companies has revealed. And a new approach is needed to regain the confidence of industry and prevent another "lost generation".
For Caroline Neville, former principal of City College Norwich and policy director at the Learning and Skills Council, it is no easy task.
Today's qualifications framework lacks the flexibility that colleges and training providers need to reach industry.
But the lessons learned from 6,000 employees in the LSC employer- training pilots should change all that - and help reshape the way vocational studies are taught, assessed and accredited from the age of 14.
"The vocational offer in this country is not strong," she says. "It has been reviewed and changed many times and has not been able to build up a status to match that of A-levels. Although A-levels have changed significantly, the brand is still there."
Pilots show that recruiting learners and getting employers engaged, rather than targeting individuals, helps cut drop-out rates. But employees need a qualification with status, not just basic skills training.
"They find it more attractive and rewarding," she says. "The training is also better received if it is in context - showing the relationships between basic skills, key skills and the business environment."
Such reforms are essential to hit the target of cutting by 1 million the number of adults trapped below level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and raise the proportion on level 3 (A-level equivalent) from 47 to 52 per cent.
After the initial study, development work is focusing on construction, health and care, manufacturing and retail. The LSC and Construction Industry Training Board has launched a pound;9m scheme to assess and accredit the skills of 10,000 building workers. And the Confederation of British Industry is offering 12-week programmes to prepare school-leavers for trades.
In Cornwall, the local learning and skills council, regional development agency and Jobcentre Plus are mapping the skills and qualifications of building workers.
Local and regional collaborations point to a national imperative to transform the qualifictions framework.
"If there is unanimity on anything, it is a strong call from employers, individuals and training providers to accelerate change and simplify the qualifications framework. We spend an enormous amount of time thinking about training but too little on efffective accreditation," Ms Neville says.