Comment: It is supposed to cover everyone from refuse collectors to headteachers

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The Independent Online
ALL POWER to the Government's elbow as it seeks to clamp down on cowboy traders. But I fear that shoddy skills, rather than being an aberrance, are endemic.

Having just moved into a new house, I say this with some feeling. Beautifully designed, with views across to Liverpool's Anglican cathedral and the Mersey, it should be a joy to live in. Most of the time it is, but our first few months there have been marred by the frustrations of poor workmanship - plumbing that leaked, doors that did not fit, a hot water system that had not been properly installed.

Such faults are so common that they have become almost an accepted part of moving house, but they betray a lack of competence and pride. The reform of vocational qualifications a decade ago was supposed to get to the heart of these failings, but if anything it has made matters worse. As they first emerged, the new National Vocational Qualifications were so oddly constructed that they were no guarantee that essential training had taken place.

Successive governments have tried to rescue the situation. But the first annual report of the Chief Inspector of the Training Standards Council published this month reveals there are still alarming weaknesses. Eighty per cent of the work of a quarter of the training providers was rated as unsatisfactory or poor.

In part, this failure comes from the catch-all approach to qualifications. The same system is supposed to cover everyone from refuse collectors to headteachers. But vocational qualifications only have value if they attest to the ability to perform consistently to a high standard in a specified area.

Rather than vainly trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach, I would like to see the Government concentrating on those areas where qualifications could make a real difference. But good qualifications alone are not enough. They have to be appropriately embedded in the world of work. It is astonishing that in this country anyone can set up as a plumber, a builder or a hairdresser without ever having had a day's training.

The Government's proposals to institute a new kitemark through the Office of Fair Trading for honest traders who are adequately insured merely scratches the surface. If it is serious about dealing with shoddy workmanship, it should encourage trade bodies to introduce registration schemes based on vocational qualifications. At first, those ineligible could be allowed to continue, though could not claim to be backed by an authoritative body. Eventually, compulsory licensing might be introduced.

Registration would not only give better protection to the public, but create a powerful incentive to become qualified. It would also give trades like plumbing the chance of being accorded their rightful status; the way they are regarded at the moment seems woefully out of line with their earning power and importance. This, in turn, should be reflected in the pride which the practitioners bring to their work.

Alan Smithers is the Sydney Jones Professor of Education at the University of Liverpool