Vocational education has a long-standing image problem: stereotypes about work-based training persist and many bright students still shun it in favour of academic subjects.
But Cedefop, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, believes it has found the way to make the sector a more attractive option. After examining initiatives used in six countries - the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland and Spain - it has come up with a plan to improve how vocational education is perceived.
In a new report, Cedefop says governments need to work much more closely with employers to ensure that courses are always relevant to the jobs market.
The report, Attractiveness of Initial Vocational Education and Training: identifying what matters, also warns that although policies can be adapted locally, national coordination is needed to make sure they fit in with overarching strategies to improve work-based education. Cedefop adds that vocational education cannot exist in a vacuum and must be considered in the context of the wider educational system.
The report also recommends more energetic promotion, with students and graduates used as "messengers" to communicate the sector's benefits via coordinated internet and social media campaigns.
It is important to engage with families more effectively, as they have a huge influence on young people's decisions, the report says. And it advises that connecting with employers at an earlier stage in education could be important. "It may be valuable to expose students [to vocational education] at lower secondary level, or give `taster' opportunities," it says.
Chris Jones, chief executive of UK-based vocational education body City and Guilds, said that the continued stigma surrounding vocational education was a serious concern and called for more to be done to make the sector inviting.
"Research shows that flexibility is attractive - having pathways that allow students to move between academic and vocational tracks," he said. "We must also make sure we link the skills curriculum to industries that are growing and will have a high demand for skills development."
A good example of this is the recent announcement by the UK government that it will set up a specialist college to train engineers for its ambitious high-speed rail project, HS2, Mr Jones said. "The more students can see those relationships, the greater the vocational brand will become," he added.
The European Commission's grand vision for the future of vocational education and training, the Bruges Communiqu of 2010, says that by 2020 the sector should be more attractive, relevant, career-oriented, innovative, accessible and flexible.
But data from 2010 shows that participation in vocational education courses at upper and post-secondary level varies widely across the European Union, from 75 per cent in Austria to less than 15 per cent in Cyprus.
The Cedefop report warns that while esteem for vocational education is growing in some of the newer EU member states, albeit from a low starting point, it is declining in Western Europe. In countries where it is held in relatively low esteem compared with general education, such as Ireland, Lithuania and Sweden, vocational policies tend to focus on the basics, the report says, such as reducing the early drop-out rate from education and making sure courses are linked to the jobs market.
But in countries where vocational education is held in high esteem, such as Austria, Finland and Hungary, more advanced initiatives are improving areas such as guidance and counselling for students, as well as campaigns and skills competitions.
Cedefop recommended a Europe-wide survey of students to increase understanding of their decision-making.