This week the head of a course teaching 80 would-be nursery nurses at a college in the South-west told The TES that she fears all will fail.
The problem is the requirement to pass key skills. The teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "Many of our students are outstanding nurses, but they are not mathematicians or experts in computers. They are achieving their vocational goals very well, but ...will be deemed to have failed, and that's devastating."
Key skills is probably the most acute of a host of concerns surrounding Modern Apprenticeship schemes - concerns that it is hoped next month's skills White Paper will address. The paper promises a major inquiry into skills delivery. Education Secretary Charles Clarke has already said he wants to see employers more involved in training to ensure skills match the needs of industry.
Reform of the key skills element of the MA will be high on the wishlist of many employers. The MA is intended to allow young people to earn while they learn a skilled trade - but firms fear the keys skills part of it is depriving them unnecessarily of skilled workers.
There are about 220,000 young people on modern apprenticeships in England, covering 13 industrial sectors, including agriculture, construction, engineering, health care and public services, and media. In a 2002 report, the Adult Learning Inspectorate described key skills as "the biggest single cause of young people's failure to succeed with a modern apprenticeship."
It said: "Unpopular with both learners and their employers, (key skills) were a weakness in nearly half of providers inspected, often either left to the end of the programme or omitted entirely."
Inspectors agreed the idea behind key skills - that basic skills are best acquired in a practical context, especially for those who did not flourish at school - was sound. "But in their present form they are often a barrier, rather than a pathway, to success."
Training providers say the key skills tests, in areas such as communication, numeracy and IT, prevent the MA scheme being as successful as it could be. Dave Rogers, chairman of the Association of Learning Providers told its conference this month: "Key skills testing is not mandatory in schools, colleges or universities, so why is it in apprenticeships?"
The Association of Colleges says only 51 per cent of apprentices are achieving an NVQ at either foundation or advanced level, while less than three out of 10 complete all the MA elements, including key skills.
David Gibson, the AoC's chief executive, has pointed to the high drop-out rate and recruitment difficulties of the MA. IT is, he said, "not appealing enough to young people or their employers".
The reforms to the MA will begin with the work of the National Modern Apprenticeship Taskforce. Led by Sir Roy Gardner, and including individuals from across industry and the education and training sector, its role is to expand the MA scheme and plug the skills shortages in key sectors.
Apart from key skills, it will need to address concerns over how to compare the MA with a bewildering array of other vocational courses and a lack of "portability" - apprentices often find it hard to resume interrupted programmes when they switch jobs.
The Education Secretary has stated he wants to see 28 per cent of young people beginning an MA by the age of 22 by 2004. He has said the Government will work with the taskforce "to promote MAs to employers and steer future development of MAs".
So how should problems with key skills be tackled? Some, notably the ALP, want it dropped from the MA completely.
An ALP spokesman said: "We need to retain the core value of MAs, but they need to be more responsive to employers' needs.
"Essentially, key skills testing should not be included in the MA.
Employers and training providers believe that young people should be given those skills at school. This testing should not be holding them back at what they are good at."
But David Sherlock, head of the ALI, said key skills were vital. The change, in his view, should be in the way they are taught. "A lot of kids on modern apprenticeships do not have the necessary basic skills to succeed in a job," he said. "You cannot simply take away the key skills element.
But what is needed is a different way of delivery."
He suggests an "intensive period in the classroom" to deal with key skills as a compulsory precursor to the apprenticeship. "That would be a way of dealing with key skills upfront and getting them out of the way," he said.
Ian Ferguson, deputy chair of the MA Taskforce, predicts changes will be made to the scheme, but points out most apprentices are "comfortable and very satisfied".
His solution to the key skills problem appears to be a less formal assessment process. "There is a problem with key skills insofar as they are seen as a separate thing that is assessed in a very academic fashion. In the short-term the key skills assessment should take place in the workplace and not as exams.
"In the long term I don't think key skills should be separate. They should be integrated."
HOW TO STOP DROP-OUTS
A STUDY has identified the key factors that stop people dropping out of Modern Apprenticeships.
The Learning and Skills Development Agency research - entitled Making the Difference - was carried out among organisationsproviding work-based MA training in the East and West Midlands.
It found that students in industries with a long tradition of apprenticeship and a culture of working practices that support learners, such as engineering and manufacturing, are more likely to obtain qualifications.
The recommended measures are vital if nationaltargets for the MA are to be met, says the LDSA. The report says that training providers need to:
* identify potential non-completers and take swift action;
* make sure that trainees are placed on the right training programme;
* set up efficient monitoring systems;
* redesign learningprogrammes; and
* provide training andqualifications for staff.