A government programme to expand vocational training for 14 to 16-year-olds has been praised by inspectors for providing a good alternative to traditional subjects.
But, in the first major review of the Young Apprenticeships programme, Ofsted also discovered that most courses are poorly tailored to pupils'
individual needs, little effort is being made to attract girls to traditionally male subjects, and that ethnic minorities are less likely to take up vocational study. Despite this, pupils are highly motivated, more than half are achieving good standards, and there are very few poor-quality courses, the report concluded.
The apprenticeships allow pupils to spend two days a week working towards qualifications in subjects such as business and administration, social care, and sports management. They complete 50 days of work experience as part of their studies, while still following core national curriculum subjects at school.
The scheme is part of the Government's development of vocational training to plug a national skills gap, which will be extended in 2008 with the introduction of specialised diplomas.
Miriam Rosen, Ofsted's director of education, said: "The Young Apprenticeships programme has provided a successful alternative to the traditional key stage 4 provision. In the most effective partnerships, good teaching and training helped ensure that students achieved well."
Ofsted's survey, carried out between autumn 2005 and summer this year, looked at 24 partnerships between schools, colleges and training providers across England offering the full range of vocational courses.
"In almost all the partnerships, the students were motivated and enjoyed the programme. They achieved well in over half, and developed good practical skills and knowledge relevant to their vocational sector," the report said.
However, inspectors also found that the majority of the courses were not providing good individualised learning plans for pupils. Five partnerships did not use them at all and they were used poorly in a further 11.
Some courses, such as engineering and health and social care, were dominated by one gender and did not attract ethnic minority pupils. Ms Rosen said these issues needed addressing. The report also found that even though work placements were good in more than half of the partnerships, five of them did not provide the required 50 days' experience. And students were not always clear about the relevance of what they learnt on work experience to the qualifications they were studying.
Andrea Watson, an NVQ assessor at Selby College, said the programme had been an "excellent" step to providing better vocational training. "It has been a great opportunity for pupils to do something different and get qualified in different areas," she said. "The extended work experience has worked out well with pupils getting a lot more out of it than on the usual two weeks they get at school. They can really find out what it's like out there. It's been a good challenge at the college too, where we have usually been used to dealing with school leavers. I think the apprenticeships will grow as they become more established and fit in well with the diplomas coming in."