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Must read for the caring minister

Britain has a proud tradition of work-based apprenticeships stretching back to the days of the medieval guilds. Yet for a century or more we have failed to develop this area - which used to be our strength. The result has been a long decline in apprenticeships, leaving us with a shortage of technical skills and a large pool of unskilled labour.

The economic and human cost has, arguably, been catastrophic. While other countries - notably Germany - have modernised and extended their apprenticeship schemes, in Britain they are associated with industrial decline and failure.

This week, however, a report by the influential Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics (FE Focus, page 27) offers a fresh approach, which chimes nicely with New Labour thinking. Its key aim - to offer one in three school leavers a high-quality apprenticeship by 2008 - could transform the lives of thousands of young people. The benefits to the economy, too, would be considerable.

In recent years, the increase in "staying on" rates has been achieved almost entirely through the academic route - GCSEs, A-levels and general NVQs. The truly vocational route - workplace national vocational qualifications - has remained virtually static. That represents failure for too many people. If ministers are serious about ending social exclusion at all levels in our society they should study this report.

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