The number of people starting apprenticeships rose by more than half during the past year, according to government statistics.

During the 2010-11 academic year, 422,700 people took up government-subsidised training positions, compared with 279,700 the previous year.

More than three-quarters of the growth came from over-25s, whose numbers more than tripled. These workers now account for 40 per cent of the total number of starts. The number of under-19 starts grew by 10 per cent.

John Hayes, skills minister, noted that “manufacturing and engineering are up by 20 per cent. And the biggest proportion of growth is in advanced apprenticeships – up nearly 70 per cent”.

Apprenticeships are formal training contracts where the government meets a portion, or all, of the training costs while employers pay wages. Some, such as the training positions offered by BT, the telecoms company, and Rolls-Royce, the aeronautics company, are heavily oversubscribed.

Customer service, social care and retail are now the three biggest apprenticeship sectors. Supermarkets are among the fastest-growing providers of apprenticeships; Wm Morrison has set itself a target of providing 12,000 starts for 2011.

Mr Hayes wrote to the National Apprenticeship Service on Thursday to ask them to concentrate resources on maintaining the quality of the apprenticeship brand as the number of positions grows. The NAS is already reviewing all short apprenticeships – some as brief as 12 weeks – to check that they meet its quality criteria.

The slower take-up rate among under-19s will cause concern. Youth unemployment remains high but according to an official government report published earlier this year, employers remain wary about hiring younger apprentices, citing “concerns over legislation, health and safety regulation, etc”.

Alison Wolf, a professor of public policy who conducted the review for the Department for Education, wrote: “If we want to increase apprenticeship openings for young people [under the age of 19], we will have to pay for them.” The proposal does not appear in a current consultation on the topic.

Gordon Marsden, shadow skills minister, said: “The key task now for ministers is to work urgently on new mechanisms with businesses and colleges to deliver the crucial uplift in available apprenticeships for young people, which these statistics show are still desperately needed.”

Mr Hayes pointed out, however, that there was strong growth among 19- to 24-year-olds, with the number of starts by people in that age group rising by a fifth to reach 139,000.

On Thursday, the DfE announced that it was implementing another of Prof Wolf’s recommendations – league tables will give a reduced weighting to vocational qualifications, with some excluded from the measures altogether. Nick Gibb, a schools minister, said: “No pupil should be preparing for a vocational qualification simply to boost the schools’ …score in the performance tables.”

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