The latest report on apprenticeships in the UK makes a depressing read. Not only because of poor stay-on and pass rates but also the low-status image that persists in anything that is not A-level.
As we report on page one, a completion rate of 70 per cent must be achieved within 10 years if we are to compete with other European countries. Some areas of the UK face an impossible task, according to evidence from the Leicester university report. Wales, for example, would need a five-fold increase in numbers of trainees staying the course.
In spite of numerous revamps by successive governments, apprenticeships have been dogged by failure since traditional training schemes went into decline with the 20th-century closure of coalmines, car factories and shipbuilding. The Tories tried to revive training, with the introduction of Modern Apprenticeships in 1994, and Labour reshaped these as Apprenticeships - dropping the Modern - at the dawn of the new century.
After a faltering start, there has been progress. Completion rates went up from 41 to 46 per cent this year. It was a small but significant step, helping the Government to hit its learning and skills target.
However, they are still far from perfect. It is not enough to create schemes and set targets in the hope that everyone will come running to sign up.
What the Leicester report does not mention - but is at the heart of the problem - isthe poor quality of so many of the study programmes associated with apprenticeships. They lead nowhere - and the trainees know it. If ever there was a need for clear guidance from the Learning and Skills Council to improve co-operation and partnership between colleges and industry, this is it.
At their best, the schemes are shining examples of excellence, taking those who choose to quit school early through to higher education. But, as government and education quango officials testify, too many training organisations are keen to get bums on seats while doing little to ensure quality.
This is where attention is needed most urgently. The report points unequivocally to poor management of schemes by many local learning and skills councils. The best councils have created long-standing relationships with training providers, through good communications. Those like Bournemouth, Dorset and Poole, for example, talk up the programmes, assist employers, help check that apprentices are on the right courses and monitor completion rates.
This is not rocket science, but it is nevertheless about high aspirations for those looking for an early step on the ladder to a good job. When it comes to performance, the message is simple: the rest of the LSCs must aspire to the best.