Labour's cure for the 'British disease' of poor vocational education isn't working. Warwick Mansell and Jon Slater report.
THE Government's drive to improve vocational qualifications is faltering, new statistics on two flagship programmes reveal.
Only one in four trainees who embark on modern apprenticeship schemes, the centrepiece of the Government's drive to boost workplace skills, goes on to gain the qualification.
And vocational A-levels continue to be blighted by low take-up and high failure rates, in a qualification many observers see as too academic.
Some 74 per cent of modern apprenticeship trainees either drop out or fail to gain the qualification, the first statistics on completion rates reveal.
In the retailing, customer service and transportation apprenticeships, the completion figure was only 16 per cent. For hairdressing and beauty therapy, and health, social care and public services, the rate was 22 per cent.
The Government launched an investigation into the future of modern apprenticeships earlier this year in the face of widespread concern over a lack of support from some companies.
There have also been claims that key skills qualifications, which students have to complete to gain an apprenticeship, are too academic and unrelated to working environments. Some trainees are being taken off courses by their employers before they are able to complete them.
There is concern that young people will embark on modern apprenticeships, which typically take two years to complete, with little prospect of success.
Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, said: "We hope that the Government and employers will take these results very seriously.
"They need to look at ways of improving performance rates, in the interests of the young people who have been guided onto these programmes."
Meanwhile, figures released this week on vocational A-levels provided some cheer for ministers, with the number of entries increasing by 13 per cent.
However, the numbers attracted to the qualification are still low: 84,721 this year, against 750,000 entries for conventional A-levels.
In all subjects, failure rates were well above the A-level average, while the proportion of students gaining A grades was much lower for vocational A-levels.
Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools heading a Government task force which is proposing introducing a baccalaureate-style diploma to replace A-levels and GCSEs, has been an outspoken critic of vocational A-levels as too academic.
There is some evidence that students are favouring more work-orientated qualifications in preference to them.
For instance, the number of school students enrolling on Edexcel's BTEC national qualification - a work-based alternative to A-levels - increased from 700 to 1,600 this year.
The figures underline the importance of the Government's skills strategy, another attempt to tackle long-running skills shortages which was widely welcomed when it was published last month.
* Labour has made no progress since it came to power in increasing the numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds in education or training, according to government figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats.
In 2001, the last year for which figures are available, 173,000 of 16 to 18-year-olds, or 9 per cent, were not in education, employment or training.
This was the same proportion as in 1997.
The number of school-leavers continuing in full-time education has also remained static.
VOCATIONAL A-lEVELS 2003
Single award: Number of entries: 40,914 Pass rate: 83.3 per cent
Double award: Number of entries: 43,807 Pass rate: 85.7 per cent
A-levels: Number of entries: 750,537 Pass rate: 95.4 per cent