We have to overcome society's perception of progression as one-directional. It should take many different forms, allowing people the flexibility to learn new skills, maintain existing ones or step down to lower levels.
The forum was part of a TES-sponsored series of debates staged by the awarding body City amp; Guilds, attended by policy makers and educationists. It posed the question "Does progression always have to mean moving up?" And "Is there any value in ascribing levels to qualifications?"
Tim Oates, head of research at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said: "Surely what we should be asking is, are the tools we're developing facilitating the kind of skill acquisition society needs, the economy needs and individuals need?
"And that may mean horizontal progression, it may mean vertical, it may mean many different forms. And unless that's being facilitated by the instruments we're developing, then the instruments are not working."
He cited the case of a young woman taking an apprenticeship because it was something she wanted to do, despite pressure from her parents and college to take an academic route.
"In universities, if you ask a large number of people what they're doing there, they don't know why and that's very serious," he said. "You don't find that in the German system, or the French system."
Helen Schofield, chief executive of the Community Justice national training organisation, said that it is possible to mix and match academic and vocational qualifications for the learner. She spoke of the diploma in probation studies - a level 4 NVQ embedded in an honours degree delivered to employed trainee probation officers.
She said a number of universities were initially unhappy about developing the diploma. But those who continued with it found trainees could move between studies at university and practice in probation.
"One of the important lessons we have learned from embedding the NVQ into a degree is the benefit gained from joining both academic and vocational learning to get the best of both worlds," she said.
John Hyde, managing director of private training company VT Plus Training, said putting together an ideal "fantasy model" for a qualification system is "stymied at the top". "Putting the framework together in the main is done by senior civil servants who come from a very narrow background," he said.
Adrian Perry, former principal of Lambeth College, said we have too many qualifications. "Is the examinations industry itself part of the problem? If we look at the American community college system, people becoming a correctional officer will be doing a degree. Every taxi driver you meet in America is doing a degree because they have that modular system. And part of the confusion we have isn't about valuing academic versus vocational. It's about 20,000 qualifications."
Keith Brooker of City amp; Guilds replied: "I can see how that charge against examining boards can be levied. But it's a reflection of what's gone on in general education of late, where the whole assessment regime was completely overweighted. There's often the perception that there are too many qualifications around. But what's the right number?"
He said before a qualifications framework, vocational areas had their own range of qualifications allowing progression through them. He cited the example of the plumber who goes on to become a master plumber.
"In that domain, that was well understood. They weren't worried about all the other qualifications that were around. But, if you put it into a framework, the plumber begins to believe that this has to be in some way the same level as an A-level candidate who's looking to do something completely different.
"The system has grown to a state where it is difficult to see where the responsibility really lies - with NTOs and sector skills councils, qualifications regulators, awarding bodies, funding agencies, government departments and ministers all involved."