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Leading article: Apprentices need reform

The education establishment seems to think that it is a good thing for children as young as 14 to be able to take up to two days off school each week to learn a trade under the Government's radical shake-up of apprenticeships.

The education establishment seems to think that it is a good thing for children as young as 14 to be able to take up to two days off school each week to learn a trade under the Government's radical shake-up of apprenticeships. We can see why. There are too many children who are turned off by an academic curriculum. They bunk off school or play up to their teachers in class and make everyone else's lives a nightmare. The answer, ministers think, is to allow 14-year-olds to train on the job while studying the basics at school.

At the moment, 255,500 young people aged between 16 and 24 have signed up to the apprentice scheme. The Government intends to expand that number via a pilot initially. It is probably a good idea, and ministers may well be right that it will boost the economy and encourage teenagers to stay on at school. But there are legitimate concerns that must be addressed.

First, the programme costs a lot of money - £800m a year - and Gordon Brown is promising to invest more. Is this money being wisely spent? Young people seem reluctant to sign up. The Government is struggling to reach its target of at least 28 per cent joining the scheme by 2004: the most recent figures show that only 23 per cent have joined so far. Ministers, however, are confident that they will hit the target by the end of the year.

Second, two out of three trainees fail to finish their apprenticeships and trainees get no credit for partially completed apprenticeships if they change employers. A shocking 82 per cent of apprentice builders drop out. And because an apprenticeship is not a qualification in itself, many apprentices are left with nothing to show for their efforts.

This week's reforms will go some way to addressing these concerns. An eight-week probationary period is being introduced to cut the drop-out rate, and to ensure that people choose the right courses. However, the changes do little to address a major problem - the requirement for trainees to pass tests in maths and communication. While good basic skills are vital for any career, should would-be plumbers or builders be branded failures for not passing literacy and numeracy tests to GCSE or A-level standard? The Government must deal with this issue if apprenticeships are to become the successful vocational route that ministers hope for.

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