The research, carried out by SWA Consulting and published by the Department for Education and Skills, found no evidence that work-related learning schemes raised levels of qualification at age 16.
At the end of their projects, in 1999, 28.6 per cent of pupils involved in the projects gained five or more GCSEs at A*-C. The rest of their year groups gained 31.5 per cent, and the control group gained 35.6 per cent.
However, organisers of the 35 projects studied nationwide believe that pupils were better motivated and their attendance and behaviour improved as a result. They found a truancy rate of 2.5 per cent among the project groups, compared with 2.8 per cent across the pupils' year groups and 3.5 per cent in a control group.
However, the researchers added that the effect was at least partly due to the fact that members of the project group had been selected for a high-profile scheme, rather than to its content. "For many students, the biggest boost to self-esteem and confidence was being selected for what was seen to be a high-status initiative," they said. On one scheme, students were encouraged to stay on by a "celebration day" at Liverpool football club.
The researchers studied projects ranging from "key skills" to bricklaying. Pupils taking part were likely to be those who were disaffected.
The students on the schemes were more likely than their peers to get work and less likely to stay in education at age 16. Fourteen per cent ended up without work or involved in education, compared with 10 per cent in the control group and 16 per cent for the rest of their year groups.
One of the research authors, Alan Watson, believes the results are encouraging, despite the lack of positive evidence on exam improvement. For most students, vocational courses simply helped to bring the curriculum alive, he said. But they could help keep the less motivated from truanting or dropping out altogether.
Alan Watson, of SWA Consulting, said:"It gives them a fresh start. The students can come in without baggage and form new relationships. It's a way of keeping them within the system and firing them up again."
Is Estelle's vision out of focus? p28