Chancellor pledges skills boost to cure Britain's Achilles' heel. Steve Hook reports
Modern apprenticeships were relaunched with a fanfare from politicians but a cautious response from industry as ministers attempted to breathe new life into vocational training.
The 16 to 25 age limit has been removed to open up the scheme to all comers from age 14 to the grave, with the prospect that schoolchildren will be able to start their apprenticeships through work experience placements.
New apprenticeships will include a "high-quality" route at key stage 4 for pupils who choose to study for specific vocational qualifications.
Work will be done on "portability arrangements" to enable trainees to take their part-completed apprenticeship with them if they move to a new employer.
The Confederation of British Industry welcomed the changes but questioned whether small firms will risk investing in trainees who, with the introduction of portable qualifications, will find it easier to leave before their training ends.
Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, congratulated ministers, but warned the scheme would prove tough for small companies.
He said: "I don't think big employers will be risking their investment. For other small businesses, I do think there will be a lot of challenges."
Phil Willis, education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "It is welcome that the Government is finally beginning to regard apprenticeships as a real alternative to classroom education.
But much greater emphasis has to be put on completing training schemes.
"With two out of three trainees failing to finish their apprenticeships, the drop-out rates remain far too high.
"Employers and trainees need real incentives to ensure that more apprenticeships are seen through to a successful end."
The Government currently spends pound;800 million a year on the scheme.
At the launch of "Apprenticeships" (the word "Modern" has been dropped), Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, said: "We need to help young people and we need to help the over-25s.
"We will need even higher skills in the future. We are talking about nothing less than a revolution in skills and in the economy.
"We are committed to spending more this year, next year and in the years after that on apprenticeship training for those who want to take up that opportunity.
"Apprenticeships are strong in certain sectors but need to be strengthened across the economy. Skills are Britain's Achilles' heel."
Employers have demanded cash to help them cover their employment costs - which can be as much as pound;100,000 per trainee.
Martin Temple, director general of EEF, formerly the Engineering Employers'
Federation, said: "For these reforms to succeed, it is essential that employers and employees receive adequate increases in funding.
"We hope that the close involvement of the Chancellor is a signal that the forthcoming spending review will back this announcement with greater resources."