Leading Article: This won't qualify as a step forward

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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown's announcement that big businesses such as McDonald's, Flybe and Network Rail will be allowed to award their own GCSEs, A-levels and degrees is perplexing to a public already confused about the variety of qualifications in the marketplace. Critics have called them McQualifications, but the Prime Minister says he does not expect standards to fall.

The rationale for another reform in the exam system is that the UK workforce is woefully lacking in skills, certainly in formal skills that can be accredited. Lord Leitch, in his report, called for two million more people to have level 3 qualifications (A-level standard) by 2020, and for 40 per cent of the public to have degree-level qualifications.And John Denham, the Universities Secretary, argued that the reform was an important step towards ending the old divisions between company training schemes and national qualifications.

So, the government announcement is a determined attempt to deal with the concerns raised by Leitch and business leaders that schools, colleges and universities are failing to equip young people for the world of work. At the moment, about half of youngsters leave school without good passes at GCSE; they get jobs and acquire skills and knowledge as they go along, but don't necessarily acquire certificates to prove that they have this expertise.

The question is whether the new qualifications are the way to go. Critics have warned that there are no guarantees that the McQualifications will be truly transferable. There is a danger that they will not be properly recognised by businesses other than the ones that awarded them. Will other fast-food restaurants recognise graduates from McDonald's new basic shift-manager course when it starts this month?

National qualifications awarded by independent bodies have the great advantage of being universal. Everyone understands the value of a qualification from a traditional board and the same award can be used by students as a stepping stone to a wide variety of destinations.

Instead of companies creating new qualifications, we would argue it would be more useful if their training led to more widely accepted qualifications. Today, it is a rare employee who has a job for life. This is why it is vital that people have skills that are useful in a range of companies and sectors.