The popularity of national vocational qualifications among employers has been exaggerated. At least one-third of the million training successes claimed by ministers seem not to exist. Worse still, a substantial number of the qualifications are not NVQs at all, but temporary certificates given to old-style awards from City and Guilds and others.
This is not a conference season salvo from a Labour or Liberal Democrat opposition, nor are such conclusions drawn from the usual line-up of NVQ critics. The parlous state of the nation's vocational training emerges from the most dispassionate and detailed study yet, funded by the Gatsby Foundation and carried out by the London School of Economics and the London University Institute of Education (see page 1).
The real scandal, however, is that these figures cannot be proved or refuted to anyone's satisfaction. A government which stakes its very existence on the pursuit of individual excellence and the setting of tough, verifiable targets has signally failed to demand or keep accurate records in the most necessary place of all - where job training is taking place. That ministers did not demand this from day one of the most sweeping training reforms yet embarked upon beggars belief.
Researchers have been frustrated at every turn in their quest for reliable data, not least by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. But then, in the council, ministers have created a living contradiction. It is a body charged both with regulating standards and marketing the product. Such a body cannot maintain the tough independent scrutiny needed.
Again, this is not opposition-speak but a central conclusion in the recent five-yearly independent review of the council commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment. The review insisted that the NCVQ could not both promote vocational qualifications and regulate them properly.
Apprentices and youth trainees have been channelled into this system for more than eight years. New general national vocational qualifications for schools and colleges have been shaped on the back of NVQs. And a testing regime based largely on projects and exams has been displaced by a huge experiment in competence testing.
Of course reforms were needed and ministers were right to inject a sense of urgency; procrastination would have led to paralysis. Traditional apprenticeships were not meeting employers' needs. Hundreds of thousands of school-leavers were getting a raw deal. But having put the system in place, all effort has gone into persuading the country that everything is fine and that too close a scrutiny would threaten this development. It has suited ministers to take uncritically so many of the pictures of progress passed to them. When voices of caution hit a peak, committees of inquiry were trotted out - Dearing, Capey, Beaumont - only to have their hard-hitting (and costly) recommendations sanitised.
Ministers knew of the Gatsby report months ago, but seem to have lived in a state of constant denial. Meanwhile, development costs have spiralled, NVQs have taken off in hairdressing and retailing but not engineering and manufacturing, and the voices of discontent refuse to fade away. Basking in an unduly flattering light, ministers failed to do what was necessary to raise the quality of NVQs. There is much that is good in them and the methods of assessing competence in the workplace.
Like a crumbling school building, however, each denial brings in its wake ever more costly repairs. Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, owes it to the country to admit the failures and pursue the remedies which are contained, not in the Government's limited programme but in the wider recommendations of Beaumont, Capey and Dearing.