Education Secretary Gillian Shephard aims to improve post-compulsory education by introducing learning vouchers for 16-19-year-olds by September 1997.
The decision, announced last week in the Government's third competitiveness White Paper Creating the Enterprise Centre of Europe, comes soon after a Government-commissioned international Skills Audit which revealed the United Kingdom's poor record at GCSE, A level and equivalent vocational qualifications.
But according to Andy Green of the Institute of Education in London the Skills Audit omits some of the data he collected, thereby under- playing some of Britain's weaknesses and distorting the impressive achievements of other countries.
A consultative document will this autumn spell out proposals for a phased introduction of credits by 1997. The idea is to bring together, into a single guaranteed entitlement to learning, the existing guarantee of training and the Further Education Funding Council's duty to secure sufficient and adequate FE.
At the same time, plans for greater convergence of funding arrangements - bringing school sixth forms into line with FE colleges by giving them an element of output-related funding - will be developed to broaden the choices of young people and give them back what Mrs Shephard calls "ownership" of their education.
Figures produced in the report (see diagram below) show that the UK is bottom of a league of five nations in GCSE-level skills. At the intermediate level - two A levels, or the vocational equivalent - the UK is ahead of Singapore and the United States and level with France but well behind Germany (62 per cent). On the vocational qualifications alone, the UK figures are even less impressive. Just 14 per cent of Britons have an NVQ level 3, compared with 46 per cent in Germany.
Explaining the gap between the UK and Germany, Mrs Shephard said: "It is illustrative of Germany's success in focusing, arguably since Bismark, on technical and vocational training."
Dr Green, who compiled the data with Hilary Steedman of the London School of Economics, says Britain's position is over-emphasised. "The Skills Audit report gives a static picture that fails to acknowledge the full rate of recent improvement of other countries, in particular France and Singapore," he said. "The report relies mostly on data on stocks of qualifications held by those over 19. This does not reflect current outputs of qualifications of countries because most of the qualified people in the sample gained their qualifications some time ago."
In France the latest data shows that 65 per cent of the age cohort are achieving the baccalaureate compared to 41 per cent of Britons who in 1994 achieved the equivalent so-called Level 3 qualification (two A Levels passes or GNVQ advanced qualification).