As countries the world over look to kick-start their economies, vocational training is more important than ever. But a major series of reports has highlighted a huge disparity in the numbers of young people pursuing work-based learning.
The picture is particularly bad in England, according to the research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The body's new study claims that the country needs significantly greater investment if it is to match the level of vocational education on offer in other developed countries and meet the demand for skilled workers.
While as many as a third of young people in countries such as France and South Korea embark on vocational training after leaving secondary school, the OECD concludes that the equivalent figure in England is "probably well under 10 per cent".
The report, A Skills Beyond School Review of England, calls on the government to "take strategic measures to encourage the expansion of high-quality post-secondary vocational programmes reflecting both labour-market demand and student needs".
The message was backed by Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges. "We think there's a latent demand for high-level vocational training," he said.
The OECD report raises serious concerns about the "limited" amount of workplace training incorporated in many qualifications in England. It also calls for a radical overhaul of the structure of exam boards, arguing that the overlap between qualifications offered by rival organisations causes confusion for students and marginalises employers.
A franchise system should be implemented, it says, in which awarding bodies bid for the right to provide qualifications for specific professions and subject areas. Local employers, too, should have greater involvement in drawing up qualifications.
"We welcome the OECD's view that vocational qualifications must address skills needs and be clear signals to individuals of what employers value," said Nigel Whitehead, a commissioner for the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
The minimum duration for 16-18 apprenticeships in England is 12 months, but equivalent qualifications in Austria, Australia, Canada and Germany often last between three and four years, according to the report. As a result, it says, apprenticeships in England play a "very small" role in post-secondary education.
Last month, it emerged that the requirement for lecturers to have formal teaching qualifications was being scrapped in England. The OECD has backed the move, arguing that the need for formal qualifications "acted as a barrier to the recruitment of teaching staff with useful industry experience".
However, Toni Fazaeli, chief executive of the professional body the Institute for Learning, called for teaching qualifications to be mandatory in further education. "We agree with the report's recommendation that teachers new to the profession should be supported with effective mentoring and induction," she said. "But these should be complementary to, not a replacement for, initial teacher training and continuing professional development."
A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "Apprenticeship starts are up by 86 per cent between 2009-10 and 2011-12, and we will ensure the quality of the best is replicated throughout the programme.
"The new Tech Levels will further raise the status and quality of the vocational education route at 16-19. These will help ensure our workforce is skilled, agile and able to respond to the opportunities presented by the growing economy."