Rules which have dictated the shape of job qualifications for 10 years are likely to be relaxed to meet ministers demands for a more flexible work training.
Ministers are understood to be concerned that an over-reliance on testing skills for job qualifications - known as competence-based assessment - is undermining efforts to build a more coherent and flexible training system for all, as reported in The TES last week.
Government officials and advisers say the reforms ministers are seeking to work-related qualifications can be achieved within the recommendations in three recent inquiries into post-16 education and training. But it would still need a radical shake-up of the criteria which govern national vocational qualifications and general national vocational qualifications.
Two-thirds of the 16,000 qualifications available have remained outside the NVQ framework because awarding bodies and some employers say the changes would make them narrower and weaker.
Senior civil servants and leading figures involved in vocational education and training have been meeting behind closed doors to thrash out ideas for a new framework.
Two sets of criteria govern NVQs and GNVQs. The first part describes exactly what a qualification must look like to fit it in the framework.
The other criteria stress the need for qualifications to be based on clear outcomes, to be properly monitored and have a good system of quality assurance. This is where the emphasis is likely to shift to.
Department for Education and Employment sources told The TES this week that departmental minister James Paice was particularly anxious about the lack of flexibility in the job training framework. Training and enterprise councils also want a more flexible approach to assessment.
Chris Humphries, TEC national council policy director, said: "There is a strong desire to try and rethink the whole approach to assessment and the way the current rules and principles get in the way."
He criticised NVQs for being "too narrow, detailed, rigid and bureaucratic". There was an argument, he said, for training people in "vocational clusters" rather than narrow trades. "Why train narrowly seven different types of plumber when what we need is one flexible plumber," he said.
The TEC national council in its submission to the Beaumont review of the top 100 NVQs called for such broadening, with more stress on knowledge and understanding. "You can do this but then not award the NVQ until competence in the workplace has been demonstrated," Mr Humphries said.
Large companies which had come round to accepting NVQs this year included BT, British Gas, Marks and Spencer and the big retailers. But they reworked the qualifications, making them broader to meet their needs and those of the individuals.
Smaller firms - 96 per cent employ fewer than 20 - say they lack the resources for training and find the paperwork and costs of approaching many agencies for NVQs prohibitive.
* Two official sources told of a report "circulating within the CBI" which shows employer interest in NVQs is waning. The CBI says it has produced no such report.