TEENAGER Gillian Dickinson could afford a wry smile as the A-levels row rocked schools and colleges across East Lancashire.

For Gillian has wanted to be a plumber for years -- and she's well on the way towards achieving top vocational qualifications.

The 19-year-old is a modern apprentice in plumbing with Hyndburn Borough Council in Accrington, but is completing much of her learning with specialist tutors at Training 2000 in Blackburn.

She said: "It's been my ambition to be a plumber since I was 14. I didn't want to be stuck in an office all day, so the modern apprenticeship seemed like a great opportunity to get out and about and learn the job I wanted to do

"I'd like to go on and supervise one day and do my HND in Building Studies."

The vocational path to high-level qualifications is becoming an increasingly popular one in East Lancashire.

On Friday, for instance, Accrington and Rossendale College announced it was axing all its academic A-levels because of lack of demand, and concentrating instead on its flourishing job-based courses instead.

And the Institute of Directors claimed recently that too many young people were favouring university and 'mediocre' degrees when what the country really needed was skilled craftspeople like plumbers, joiners and electricians.

Hifzur Ahmed is a modern apprentice in printing and origination at Blackburn-based Tri-Star Printers thanks to Blackburn College. He said: "I was quite shy when I started but I've learned to get on with other people. It's great because you get qualifications and you get paid as well."

Meanwhile, Burnley College student Douglas Charlton is completing an advanced apprenticeship after achieving 10 GCSEs at Ivy Bank High School. He said: "I always wanted to get into IT and this gives me the opportunity to get some hands-on experience and the chance to start a degree."

Steve Palmer, executive director of the Learning and Skills Council Lancashire, which is responsible for post-16 education outside the university sector, added: "The modern apprenticeship programme has equipped thousands of young people across East Lancashire with skills, qualifications and the experience to succeed in their chosen careers."