Despite attempts to stem the flow, apprenticeship drop-out rates are too high, says Hugh Thompson

Dawn McPeak, 19, and Stuart Woolly, 18, are exemplary. While Dawn has just completed her hairdressing apprenticeship, Stuart has done the same in carpentry. The Government's target is for 35 per cent of 16-year-olds to be in apprenticeships by 2010. The figure today is 24 per cent. Exemplary they may be, but they are also very much the exception. Dawn was one of only two out of 20 who finished her course based at the West London College; Stuart is only one of nine out of 25 who completed his.

Dawn blames a particularly bad course tutor for the large drop-out rate in her year. "She just didn't want to know," she says. "Every problem was an inconvenience. If she hadn't left I would have." Stuart, from Banstead, Surrey, feels that many students didn't realise the commitment you had to put in. "Those that got most involved are the ones that finished," he says.

And nationally the figures are only a little better. On average only 35 per cent finish their two-year apprenticeship courses. Six years ago, when the figure was only 27 per cent, a task force was set up to see whether it was the employers, the students or the training partner (many of whom are further education colleges) who were at fault. The target is for an above 50 per cent pass rate.

Some employers have found that the only way of guaranteeing a flow of qualified tradespeople is to set up their own schemes and run the training themselves. Since British Gas set up its own academy in 2002, it has achieved a 97 per cent success rate with its apprentices. Pat McMullan, national strategy manager of the British Gas Academy, says, "We can be very selective. For the 500 apprentices we take on each year we have 19,000 enquiries and interview 3,000. Research shows that where schemes fail is in making would-be apprentices aware of what is involved and how much commitment is needed. We put a lot into advice and guidance."

A few years ago BMW, worried by the poor standards of training it was getting from colleges, brought the training in-house and the apprentice training it does in the UK is now standard for the rest of Europe.

Stephani Bellini, senior policy manager for the Learning Skills Council (LSC), the body responsible for planning and funding vocational skills for young people, says: "The figures have got much better since we took over in 2002, the pass rate has overall gone from 24 to 35 per cent and that varies from subject to subject. While those doing IT apprenticeships have a 50 per cent pass rate, those doing health and social care apprenticeships only achieve 25 per cent. Many youngsters don't leave their training; they leave their job for an extra pound an hour. Many also leave after they have passed the NVQ part of the course - there is a 48 per cent success rate at this level because they feel they can get a job ."

Courses that are employer-driven have the highest success rate; those which are trainer-driven, where the trainer has to recruit an employer, have the worst success rate. Often employers in this situation just see the apprentices as a form of cheap labour and the training and mentoring element is minimised. Further education colleges are often the worst providers of apprentice training as they are the least involved with employers, whereas private providers, who have a commercial interest in their relationships, are better. Earlier this summer the LSC published a prospectus for change aimed at further education colleges. In particular the programme looked at ways of making further education colleges focus more on what businesses need. By cutting down the numbers of trainers, recruiting better employers and giving students a six-week grace period, the LSC remains confident that its targets can be reached.

Nicky Perry, director of inspection with the Adult Learning Inspectorate says: "Further education colleges have shown themselves to be inflexible in insisting on a September to July year. It is also true in certain industries, where youngsters are working with state of the art machinery and tools, that the further education colleges are hopelessly under-equipped. Generally the system has not faced up to the fact that in many jobs youngsters move around, and for the apprenticeships to be viable, the training must be able to move with them."