England's "confusing" apprenticeship system needs a radical overhaul in order to banish the "cruel deception" they are of value, a study has warned.
Action is desperately needed to stop many young people being offered practical qualifications that have little worth, The Sutton Trust concluded in its report. Compared to other European countries, many apprenticeships are low quality and too short, according to a study commissioned by The Sutton Trust.
It suggests that hundreds of thousands of apprenticeships need to be created for young people each year to boost the economy and improve job prospects.
The study, by the Boston Consulting Group, says that at the moment, fewer than 200,000 of the 520,000 apprenticeships starting in England each year are at level 3 - which is equivalent to A-level.
Only 61,000 new apprenticeship starts were for young people, whereas in Germany - which the report says is considered to have one of the best vocational education systems - 570,000 new apprenticeships are for young people, and 90% of these are equivalent to A-levels.
At the same time, England's vocational system has 18,000 different qualifications, while Germany has 330.
The report warns that since 2010, more than half (58%) of apprenticeships have been below level 3, and three quarters have been aimed at over 25-year-olds, many of them in work.
It also cites figures which show that 11 young people are fighting for each apprenticeship, and that apprenticeships are offered by just one in five (20%) of English employers, compared to half (51%) in Germany.
In his foreword to the report, Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said that the report had found that with some exceptions, the opportunities on offer to young people who do not go to university were "poor".
The attitude in England, with some exceptions, is very different to that in countries such as Germany and Switzerland, he said.
"Instead of a clear system of respected vocational routes, we suffer from a complicated patchwork where too many young people are offered qualifications of little worth in a system that confuses employers and is not valued as it should be by society."
He added that the "cruel deception" about an expansion in apprenticeships, when many are below level 3 and the majority go to older workers, has to stop.
The report calls for apprenticeships to be radically expanded, with up to 300,000 new starts each year. The majority of these should be at level 3 at least for three years, with some four-year courses at level 4 - higher than A-levels.
No more than 10% of apprenticeships should be two-year courses at level 2, it adds.
Sir Peter said: "Real apprenticeships are as important to social mobility as good university degrees.
"Students facing huge loans for a university education find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
"Even if they would prefer to work with training, the lack of good apprenticeships means they feel they have little choice."
He added: "England's patchwork vocational system not only hinders our economic competitiveness, it prevents tens of thousands of young people from gaining good skilled jobs."
Teresa Frith, skills policy manager for the Association of Colleges, said: "Creating 300,000 apprenticeships, when the report acknowledges there is already a shortage of apprenticeship places for 16 to18-year-olds, would be a massive challenge and although we agree that there is a business case for employers to take on apprentices, at the moment too few do."
"The report also says level 3 apprenticeships should be the priority. This isn't a bad idea in principle but some level 2 apprenticeships, such as those in construction, are well-respected by the industry and should be preserved."
A Government spokeswoman said: "We are already radically reforming apprenticeships to drive up standards so that they are more rigorous and responsive to the needs of employers.
"Since 2010 over a million people have become apprentices, providing a great start to their careers. We have already insisted that apprenticeships last for a minimum of a year, include more English and maths and that every apprenticeship is a job.
"We have consulted on wider reforms to drive up standards in apprenticeships further, and will publish plans later this month."