Parents should be as proud of their children for securing a top apprenticeship as for winning a place at university, Labour's new shadow education secretary, Stephen Twigg, has said. In his first speech in the role, Twigg called for a major cultural shift that would see entry to high-level practical courses viewed with as much prestige as degrees. The former education minister, who was given the shadow role last month, admitted that the Labour government had not done its best for teenagers who were not suited to a university education. In 1999, Tony Blair set his government the target of getting 50% of young people into university by 2010. Ministers failed to meet that target but, by the end of the decade, 43% of 18 to 30-year-olds were studying for or had a degree in England, up from 14% in 1985. Twigg defended the fact that Labour had set this target, but admitted that the party had not concentrated enough on the 50% for whom university was not the right path. "University isn't the only high-status means for people to progress in life and in education," he told an event hosted by the Edge education foundation. "We should have done more on vocational education. What we didn't do, above all, was to achieve the step change in access to high quality vocational education to match the step change in higher education." He said he wanted apprenticeships to be seen as "the gold standard of post-16 vocational education" and "for parents to be as proud of their children for securing a top apprenticeship as they are if they go to university", adding: "We want to strengthen the rigour of vocational courses." One of Labour's flagship education reforms was the introduction of diplomas in 2008, a qualification for 14 to 19-year-olds that combined practical and academic courses. Twigg admitted the take-up had not been "as high as we would have hoped". Just 1,116 students completed a foundation diploma last summer. He warned that the near-trebling of university tuition fees and the abolition of a grant for poor teenagers to continue their education, the education maintenance allowance, might reverse some of the gains Labour had made. "We will monitor carefully the impact of the new fees system on participation levels, and in particular on widening participation," he said. He added that the number of young people not in education, employment or training – known as neets – remained "stubbornly high". The vast majority move between education, employment and short-term spells of unemployment, but a critical 10% stay as neets for over a year and this was "an especially difficult and important public policy challenge". In a separate development, a new school admissions code will allow popular state schools in England to take as many pupils as they want, quickening the demise of unpopular ones. The code, which will replace existing rules governing admissions from September 2013, will ban the use of lotteries to admit pupils and also ensure that schools give the same high priority to adopted children as those in care homes when allocating school places. The government said it had heard that some parents were deliberately waiting until after children had been given a school place to adopt them so that the children would benefit from the priority given to those in care.