Page last updated at 23:31 GMT, Monday, 10 August 2009 00:31 UK

Sugar apprentice site 'a gimmick'

Sir Alan Sugar
Sir Alan was controversially appointed enterprise tsar in June

A website for apprenticeships in England backed by Lord Sugar has filled 1,185 vacancies out of the 18,000 advertised, figures show.

The Conservatives have branded it a "failure" and an "expensive gimmick".

Lord Sugar, the face of BBC's The Apprentice and now government enterprise tsar, said businesses should get behind the scheme.

The government said the apprentice system was working, and successful completion rates were rising.

In June, a parliamentary answer given by the Skills Minister Kevin Brennan said 616 apprenticeship vacancies had been filled out of 17,588 advertised.

But the National Apprenticeship Service said building up the numbers of vacancies and applications was "taking time".

The number of apprenticeships accepted has risen rapidly since that date as students reach the end of their courses, it said.

Increase

Lord Sugar launched the National Apprenticeship Matching Service earlier this year with a television advertising campaign, and was controversially appointed a peer and government enterprise tsar in June.

The BBC decided there was no conflict of interest with his television work, but the Conservatives made a formal complaint to the BBC Trust.

The government said the total cost of advertising apprenticeships in 2008-09 was £2.85m.

Earlier this year the government announced it would fund an extra 35,000 apprenticeships as part of efforts to tackle the recession, costing £140m.

But its figures show there has been a decline in the numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds in England starting them - in the first nine months of 2008-09 the number dropped by 8.3% on the same period the previous year.

However, the number of apprenticeships taken up by adults over the age of 25 increased fourfold.

Overall, apprenticeships increased - to just under 200,000.

Shadow higher education spokesman David Willetts said: "Apprenticeships are an excellent way to help the young victims of Labour's recession, but the government is failing to provide the real help needed.

"Instead of celebrity gimmicks like this, the government should be funding apprenticeship places and making it easier for businesses to run the schemes."

But the National Apprenticeship Scheme said that the peak time of year for accepting apprenticeship offers was September, and it can take four months to complete the process of application and interviewing in order to fill a vacancy.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "The purpose of the Apprenticeship Vacancies system is to allow employers to advertise vacancies for free and potential apprentices anywhere in the country to see what is available and apply online.

"The system is successfully attracting employers and potential apprentices.

"The real measure of the success of apprenticeships is that 225,000 people started one in 2007-08 compared to only 65,000 in 1996-97; and successful completion rates have risen to 64%."



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