The government's skills strategy came under fire this week as figures revealed that success rates among students on modern apprenticeship programmes have in some cases fallen to as low as 16 per cent.
Statistics from the Learning and Skills Council show that in 2001-02 only one in four employees on an apprenticeship programme successfully completed it. In some sectors, success rates were worse - 16 per cent for advanced modern apprenticeships in retailing, customer services and transportation; 19 per cent in hospitality, sports leisure and travel; and 22 per cent in health, social care and public services.
The figures are a blow to ministers who have placed the apprenticeship at the core of their skills strategy and see it as a flagship qualification for raising skill levels in the workforce and providing a work-based learning route through to foundation degrees. The government ploughs about £800 million a year into supporting work-based learning, and has set a target for 28 per cent of 16-to-21 year-olds to enter programmes by 2004-05.
The news is a setback for the LSC, which is responsible for taking forward a three-year action plan, set in 2001, for the development, promotion and delivery of modern apprenticeships.
An LSC spokesman said: "This is the first time we have published the completion rates in this form, and while the picture for some sectors is good, we acknowledge that in others it is poor.
"We are not resting on our laurels and are actively examining the poorer-performing sectors, looking to set improvement targets, and devising approaches for dealing with these specific issues in collaboration with our partners, the Department for Education and Skills, the Sector Skills Development Agency, the Sector Skills Councils, and in particular work-based learning providers."
The LSC added that it was developing a work-based learning strategy focused primarily on apprenticeships with the aim that by 2010 it would be "a beacon throughout Europe and equal to the best systems in the world".
But employers, learning providers and politicians have warned that this is unlikely to be achieved unless there is a fundamental review of apprenticeships.
Maniza Ntekim, senior policy adviser for the Confederation of British Industry, said: "Employers are very supportive of the idea of apprenticeships, but there is no doubt there are problems with the current system."
The problems included burdensome assessment, too much emphasis on classroom teaching in college or by independent learning providers, and inadequate careers advice, she said.
"Many young people are not clear about what they are getting into when they join an apprenticeship programme," she added.
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers, which represents independent organisations that deliver much of the apprenticeship training, said the framework was too inflexible for many sectors.
He said: "We are talking about young people who come out of school with very modest qualifications and may enter a sector with a high turnover of staff. Every time an apprentice leaves, they are classed as a non-achiever."
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "We have heard lots of lame excuses, but the reality is that most young people are not switched on by apprenticeships. The problem is that the government's skills strategy is qualifications-led, rather than skills-led."