The number of recruits to the Government's flagship modern apprenticeship is expected to hit 60,000 this year following a surge in applications which many training and enterprise councils admit has taken them by surprise.
Recruitment in the first three months topped 9,000 - far higher than expected, since the total recruitment for 1995-96 was less than 30,000. Chris Humphries, TEC national council policy director, said: "If take-up runs according to previous participation levels - and we have no reason to expect otherwise - we will go over 60,000."
Optimism within the TECs over job training was boosted further this week with the publication of the fourth annual league tables for the 74 TECs in England showing that 65 per cent of all Youth Training leavers gained a full national vocational qualification. Also more than four out of ten adults on Training for Work gained jobs within 13 weeks of leaving schemes.
The costs and success rates on TEC programmes vary widely with the lowest spenders often achieving best results, the tables show. Birmingham TEC has the lowest YT cost per head at Pounds 1,542, but is the sixth most successful with 71.5 per cent of recruits gaining their NVQs.
Oldham has the lowest cost TFW programmes running at Pounds 531 per head and is 12th in the league for employment success with 49.3 per cent gaining jobs.
But the gap between best and worst on most of the nine cost and efficiency measures included in the league tables are closing fast. "This is a clear indication that the best practices are being spread around the country, " said Mr Humphries.
Ministers also urged caution in interpreting the results since many programmes such as education-business links and support for small firms were not included. However, the schemes covered by the tables cover 60 per cent of the estimated Pounds 1.4 TEC budget.
The success was diminished slightly by the continued failure of many TECs to meet the Government' Youth Training guarantee, which education and employment minister James Paice said "has to be improved still further".
There was also continued ministerial concern over the slow pace at which companies are gaining recognition as Investors in People - the qualification which has become the standard for good training and staff development.
But Mr Humphries insisted the results had to be seen in the light of the high level of "significant disadvantage" among recruits to YT and TFW programmes run by the TECs.
Around 48 per cent of 17-year-olds in full-time education have four or more GCSEs grade A-C, "But over 60 per cent of trainees on YT have no GCSEs, " he said.
The YT programme is to be phased out for new national traineeships which guarantee a higher level of college-based and on-the-job training. They are similar to the modern apprenticeship but pitched at a lower level.
While the TECs, however, are pleased with the modern apprenticeship's progress, the training providers funded by the TECs say they have faced a major task turning the "grand framework" of Government and the big industry training organisations into specific programmes.
It is designed to be a bridge leading school-leavers from full-time education into work.
All apprenticeships have three elements. There is a common programme of key skills: literacy, numeracy, IT and communications. Each trainee also has to learn about how their sector - such as engineering, hairdressing, or administration -works nationally.
Third, each has to carry out assignments to learn about their own company. This is all done through day-release and off-the-job training. The hope is that the balanced programme will make trainees more useful to the company while giving them transferable skills. But while the broad aims are set down in the frameworks, which were devised by industry training organisations, the precise content of the off-the-job study has been left up to providers.
For the Birmingham centre of Key Training, a national private provider, the main aim was to ensure key skills were woven tightly together with sector specific work. The emphasis on the basics - number, communication and IT - reflects the same focus in a range of projects supported by Birmingham training and enterprise council and local authority.
The basic modern apprenticeship frameworks are essentially "a jumble of bits", according to Key Training's Alan Patterson. "They include some really airy-fairy stuff such as apprentices needing to have an understanding of their company and how it works.
"Requirements like that are really quite difficult to grasp, and you could minimise them and knock them out in an afternoon. But we have tried to tie them in with key skills and produce something really solid for employers."
IN and LW