The demands of national vocational qualifications are still too expensive and demanding for the majority of small companies to afford, research at Manchester Metropolitan University suggests.
Huge inadequacies in the Government's flagship qualifications still undermine efforts to retrain the workforce in order to hit the national targets for education and training by 2000, says Phil Hodgkinson, the research co-ordinator.
"It is important not to scapegoat the companies. Many employers were altruistic and wanted the best for young people. But only a small minority were interested in the NVQ style of broadly-based training," he said.
Dr Hodgkinson reached his conclusions after a team of researchers tracked employees and their training opportunities for 15 months. His study suggests that the reforms accepted by education and employment ministers following the Beaumont inquiry into NVQs will not have a significant impact on small firms, who employ most of the workforce.
He identified three main stumbling blocks: demands for workplace-based assessment; the lack of resources or the enthusiasm to cope with the demands among smaller companies; and a payment by results system, which encourages providers to pass as many people as possible.
The research suggests that the system of NVQs is failing to meet its goals and may be leaving large numbers of young people with paper qualifications that have little real value. It is an untimely blow to the Government's attempts to steer the flagship training programme off the rocks in the run-up to the general election.
The problem was at its worst in small companies taking on youth trainees. "Employers' interests took precedence and trainees suffered," Dr Hodgkinson said. "The system is more complex than the NVQ scheme acknowledged."
Often the needs of the company clashed with those of the trainee. The employer wanted company-specific training, while the trainee needed portable qualifications.
Dr Hodgkinson told The TES: "If all you experience is one employer, you tend to receive their model - an idiosyncratic way of working." At the same time the pressure on training providers was to "minimise the learning experience", and on assessors to pass "weak" trainees.
"We found lots of examples of corners being cut and difficult parts of the programme being missed. Providers wanted to do a professional job, but there was too much pressure around the margins."