Last year, I launched National Apprenticeship Week 2011 by saying that I wanted to create the biggest and best apprenticeships programme in our country’s history.

Thanks to record Government investment, the commitment of British firms, tough measures to drive up standards and the hard work and dedication of FE & Skills professionals, I’m proud to say that we have achieved that aim.

One year on, as we approached National Apprenticeship Week 2012, new official statistics revealed a record numbers of apprenticeship starts – a 63.5% increase on 2009/10 , and outstanding success rates and growth across all regions and sectors.

The NAO also recognised the progress we’ve made, with their Assessment of Adult Apprenticeships report highlighting the extraordinary economic benefits of apprenticeships. It found that for every £1 of Government spending on apprenticeships £18 is generated for the wider economy.

National Apprenticeship Week is a great opportunity to take time to celebrate the countless achievements of learners and employers over the past year. This year, as always, I was extremely impressed by the stories I hear and the focus and dedication of everyone I meet.

However, there is more we can, and will, do to drive up quality, open up more opportunities for young people and put vocational accomplishment on an equal footing to academic achievement.

To ensure that the growth in apprenticeship numbers we have delivered is sustainable, quality must match quantity so that employers and learners know that every apprenticeship delivers world class training.

We are working with the SFA and other partners to raise the bar on quality, recognise excellence and drive out poor performance. We have tightened guidance for those developing apprenticeships and training providers that do not meet the high standards learners deserve are having their funding withdrawn. An employer-led review into apprenticeship standards, to report in late spring 2012, will indentify best practice and help ensure that government continues to maximise the impact of public investment in apprenticeships.

A zero tolerance approach to unnecessary red tape, alongside new financial incentives, will enable more SMEs to take advantage of the competitive edge that having apprentices can bring to a company. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees can now apply for a £1,500 incentive payment when they take on their first young apprentice. In addition to this, a review – led by social entrepreneur and jeweller Jason Holt – will examine what more can be done to help SMEs take on apprentices.

The Prime Minister officially opened the second round of bidding for the Higher Apprenticeships Fund during Apprenticehip Week. With 19,000 higher apprenticeships already created as a result of the first round, this latest injection of funding will enable even more apprentices to develop their talents to degree level and beyond, as well as giving firms in sectors such as advanced manufacturing, information technology and engineering the hi-tech skills they need to grow. The fund is a crucial step towards placing vocational learning on a par with academic study, giving bright youngsters the opportunity to work with and build the most dynamic firms in the country.

Looking forward to National Apprenticeship Week 2013, I strongly believe that we will continue to build on our achievements to-date, putting apprenticeships back where they belong – at the heart of our system of education and training.

John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning