Apprenticeships passed the symbolic mark of 500,000 starts last year, but for one of the groups most in need of them - teenagers - numbers declined for the first time since the beginning of the financial crisis.
After the departure of former FE minister John Hayes last month, it emerged that his main ambition was fulfilled ahead of schedule and before he left office, with 502,500 apprenticeship starts recorded in the provisional figures released last week.
In 2011, Mr Hayes told TES that he aimed to create half a million apprenticeships a year by the end of this Parliament, meeting a target that Gordon Brown had set for 2020. "It was (Brown's) biggest ambition, a long-term aim; something he dreamed of rather than expected to achieve," Mr Hayes said. "If we maintain this momentum, if we can keep it going, I think we can achieve that in the lifetime of this government, on my watch."
But not everyone is being carried along on this wave of momentum: the numbers of under-19s beginning apprenticeships last year dropped to 126,300 from 128,300 at the same point in 2010-11. The damage was done in the last half of 2011-12 as the numbers fell by more than 14 per cent in the third quarter and 10 per cent in the fourth quarter.
The Department for Education attributed this to a tightening of standards, with new rules on the length of apprenticeships, the removal of programme- led apprenticeships that did not involve employment and the investigation of quality concerns that may have moved some providers out of the market.
"It is encouraging that, despite being rigorous on quality and introducing tougher standards, apprenticeships are growing overall," a spokeswoman said. "Not surprisingly, raising the level of participation in apprenticeships among 16- to 18-year-olds is a major challenge within a difficult economic climate and the latest figures reflect that."
Meanwhile, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills highlighted the rise in higher-level apprenticeships, which rose from 2,100 to 3,500 last year.
If the drive for greater quality has caused young apprenticeship numbers to fall, it has had less effect on adult apprenticeships, which continued to grow by nearly 20 per cent to 376,200, albeit at a slower rate than in previous years.
Meanwhile, training providers, which are responsible for the majority of apprenticeships, blamed the ongoing lack of economic growth, as under-19 apprenticeships are more reliant on the creation of new jobs. "Apprenticeships are jobs and it's difficult for employers to offer new jobs at the moment," said a spokesman for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers. "That's the reality."
He added that employers were also toughening up on apprenticeship entry requirements, so were refusing to take on students with low or no qualifications. Training providers are calling for more pre-apprenticeship programmes to bring these teenagers up to the expected standards. The government has said it will develop a new traineeship programme to give unemployed young adults basic skills and work experience to help them compete for apprenticeships.
Shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden said young people were "crying out" for apprenticeships but the government was failing to provide for them. "The fact that the number has fallen in comparison to last year also shows their failure to properly engage with businesses, especially (small and medium-sized enterprises), or to convince them to participate in taking on apprentices in the current economic climate, which government policies are doing nothing to improve," he said.
Mr Marsden criticised the government for rejecting parts of Jason Holt's review of apprenticeships for small and medium-sized enterprises, including a call to promote apprenticeships in schools. This was turned down on the basis that schools should determine their own careers advice programmes.
Original headline: Apprentice numbers pass the magic 500,000 mark