The organisation at the leading edge of Britain's drive to build a fully skilled workforce is failing to keep a grip on standards, a progress report out this week has found.
A five-yearly review of the work and management of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications paints a picture of an organisation beset by fierce criticisms, including claims that it cannot both promote vocational qualifications and regulate them effectively.
The report, commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment, will damage the NCVQ's standing just as consultation begins on Government proposals to merge it with the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, creating a new single curriculum body. To the delight of traditionalists, it will fuel suspicion that the merger, being pushed through by ministers, could prove to be a takeover by SCAA, the larger and longer-established organisation.
The report will also inevitably be seen as another blow to the status of vocational qualifications, which Sir Ron Dearing's recent 16-19 review set out to boost. National vocational qualifications have already been criticised as inflexible, jargon-ridden and overly bureaucratic in the Beaumont Report earlier this year.
The review team found widespread agreement that "NCVQ should operate more effectively as a regulator, taking a firmer grip on the market and its players".
Many felt its role as a standards watchdog was incompatible with its function as an advocate for vocational qualifications, which also earn it an income.
The consultation document on the merger with SCAA highlights the same concerns over conflict of interest. Employers surveyed by the review team acknowledged strong fears that a merger would represent a "takeover by educationists" with little understanding of or concern for work-based qualifications.
The review acknowledges NCVQ has a serious image problem. Though it dismisses some complaints as misplaced, it accepts that many criticisms of NCVQ are valid, particularly those which highlight deficiencies in NVQs and GNVQs and their delivery.
It also finds that NCVQ's senior management costs(16 per cent of total overheads), are too high and criticises its organisational efficiency, though this is said to be improving. The NCVQ declined to comment on the report.