Faced with a burgeoning array of vocational qualifications in subjects such as shelf-stacking, knitting-machine mechanics and pet care, regulators say there are too many vocational qualifications, and too many question marks over quality.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which regulates public examinations, said qualifications that failed to meet the new standards would be scrapped.
From January, every work-related qualification will have to be approved by the authority to receive public funding. Officials will also inspect exam boards and publish reports. Those that do not meet national standards could face closure.
There is a bewildering range of about 17,500 work-related qualifications on offer in Britain, covering subjects as diverse as body building, pedicure and nuclear decommissioning.
Although public exams such as A-levels and GCSEs are tightly controlled, vocational qualifications have been largely unregulated.
Dr Nick Tate, the QCA's chief executive, said the current system was "crazy", with 400 qualifications covering the arts and media alone. He said many qualifications were redundant or could simply be merged, although he insisted that specialist courses would be protected.
Of the 900 National Vocational Qualifications, for example, around a third have only ever been completed by a handful of trainees - or none at all. The list of the least popular includes NVQs in amusements, carton manufacture, spectator control and funeral service.
Dr Tate said: "We are expecting a huge reduction in the total number. The present system is difficult to understand, and it's difficult for employers to understand what qualifications mean. We have a chaotic system which has emerged as a result of historical accident.
"We want to create a more logical and easier-to-understand system. We also want to be able to give people greater confidence that the qualifications they have worked forreally do mean the things they say they mean."
Dr Tate predicted that many vocational qualifications would fail to meet the new standards. Many more would simply be abandoned.
He said the agency would take a tough line with exam boards found to be below standard. "We will tell the world what we have found," he said. "If they do not improve, they will find they are not accredited and they will go out of business."
Business leaders welcomed the move, but warned that highly specialised courses played an important role. Tony Webb, director of education and training at the Confederation of British Industry, said: "Everyone gets staggered when they hear the 17,500 figure. Many people are still confused by what is going on. There should be a map of the system that everyone can understand.
"But the marketplace has allowed these qualifications to develop, so people do value them."
Judith Norrington, curriculum director of the Association of Colleges, which represents further-education institutions, said there was a danger of removing courses which were in demand by industry.
She said: "There is definitely room to get rid of the old courses that do not meet current needs, but we should not assume that things should fit into neat little boxes.
"People do not set these qualifications up for no reason. Jobs are getting more diverse and more complex, and we need to reflect that in the courses we offer."
The most popular NVQs include:
service-sector occupations including hairdressing,
childcare, retail skills.
The least popular NVQs include:
pest control; maintaining fire-extinguishing equipment;
steel hot rolling.
stringed-keyboard instrument manufacture;
electronic wiring skills;
board manufacture.Reuse content