The Government's strategy for work-based learning for young people is in jeopardy because of the poor quality of placements.
A report published this week reveals a stark deterioration in inspection grades of work-based teaching and learning.
Margaret Hodge, lifelong learning minister, ordered an immediate action plan to support employers, implement Modern Apprenticeship reform, and increase understanding of quality improvement processes.
The report shows there is a lack of trained staff and that learners have been placed on inappropriate courses which they fail to complete. But more importantly, trainers have not understood a switch in emphasis from assessing skills to developing and applying knowledge.
Last October the Adult Learning Inspectorate noticed that grades for work-based learning were deteriorating and wanted to know why. The Learning and Skills Development Agency was commissioned to research the issue, and the findings are now published.
The report shows there has been a steady decrease in grades over the past four years, with a marked deterioration since April 2001.
The proportion of grades 4 and 5 (the lowest) has increased from 18 per cent to 51 per cent. The proportion of grades 1 and 2 has fallen from 37 to 13 per cent in the past four years. The percentage of "satisfactory" grade 3s has declined from 45 to 36 per cent.
Over the same period, grades for the New Deal programme for unemployed people have gone up.
The report says a serious problem is that key skills training is seen as a burden. Many trainees have refused to take part in sessions, and they have been supported by employers. The decline cannot just be blamed on the post-16 shake-up, the agency says.
David Sherlock, chief inspector of ALI, said: "The apprentice framework seems to have crept up on providers and funding bodies. Providers have been prepared for the assessment of work-based competence but the game has changed and we are looking for A-level- type quality.
"Work-based learning is going to need a lot more help if the Government is to achieve its objectives. Key skills is a major problem. If they cannot deliver that, it is unlikely they will be able to deal with the proposed Technical Certificate."
Ms Hodge said that despite recent progress in the work-based learning route for young people, there was still more to be done.
"As we made clear in our 14 to 19 proposals, it is vital that young people have the choice of a high quality vocational route. We have put together a robust action plan, designed to transform the quality of this learning route."
Ministers will redeploy pound;25 million into a work-based learning fund, to oversee the introduction of technical certificates and create a national Modern Apprenticeship with minimum periods of training.
Chris Hughes, LSDA's chief executive, said: "Workplace learning is tough. Expectations (of success) have increased but providers have not been supported to raise their game. We now have a clearer picture of where the shortcomings lie and how to address them."
Making the grade: a report on standards in work-based learning for young people. Free from LSDA information services, 020 7297 9144