Smoke, mirrors and Apprenticeship policy

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Mick Fletcher and Seb Schmoller explore the mysteries of government policy on apprenticeships 

Some aspects of government policy on apprenticeships are baffling. The confusion may however be explained by two big problems that confront politicians dealing with education and training. They might in fact be doing the right things while pretending not to.

The first problem for politicians is that apprenticeships tend to be popular with the wrong people for the wrong reasons:

  • Middle-class people whose kids are safely on track for, in or through university tend to be enthusiastic about apprenticeships for other people’s children.
  • People of all political bents who are uncomfortable with mass higher education (HE) recognise that a million young people out of work can’t be good and see apprenticeships as a convenient solution.
  • From the Prime Minister downwards government spokesmen of all parties have pronounced apprenticeships their answer to youth unemployment when, at best, they are one of several complementary answers to a training problem.

The second problem is that apprenticeships are not terribly popular with the right people for some good reasons:

  • Employers are not keen to recruit 16–18 year olds because of their lack of maturity: and despite massive advocacy and some outright bribery they are doing so less and less (though you’d never know that from reading the PR from the apprenticeship industry).
  • The response to the move to loans for older people in advanced further education (FE) suggests that people are not prepared to put their hands in their pockets for an apprenticeship programme although they are for some level 3 qualifications.
  • Young people and their parents can see the difference between, say, an apprenticeship in customer service (where places are going begging) and an apprenticeship on a high-quality programme such as those offered by Rolls Royce or by BT (where demand far outstrips supply).

The conjunction of these two problems faces the government with a major dilemma. The logical way forward might be to recognise that apprenticeships are primarily a programme concerned with inducting some young people aged 19–24 into some skilled occupations (which is what the general public still thinks they are, and which is what they are in countries such as Germany and Denmark). In effect it means to recognise:

  • Older workers may need training, but (other than those who have been unemployed for a long time) they don’t need induction into the workplace, or to learn about employee rights and responsibilities. Moreover, their employers may lament their lack of English and maths but they are not prepared to pay for their staff to improve their knowledge of either.
  • Those aged 16–18 who are not on the HE track need programmes to increase their skills and prepare them for the world of work but the great majority do so successfully through vocational education in colleges.
  • Young people who are going into less skilled occupations need continuing support to develop as rounded and versatile citizens but this kind of training needs to be distinguished from the higher level skills training that other countries designate (and the general public thinks of) as apprenticeships.

The solution for politicians to this dilemma therefore may be loudly to proclaim undying support for the expansion of apprenticeships while quietly but determinedly moving in a different direction. This could explain, for example:

  • government equanimity about the total collapse of level 3 apprenticeships for those over 24 since loans were introduced (just 239 applications against 112,000 places in the last academic year)
  • why requiring a cash contribution for 16–18 apprenticeships is under consideration when every informed commentator thinks that it would do serious damage to recruitment
  • the haste with which government is rushing to hand responsibility for design and delivery of the apprenticeship programme to employers despite widespread concern about the damage such rapid change could cause to uptake.

A return from apprenticeships as panacea to apprenticeships as a programme focussed on young people and skilled occupations would be wise. It would be better to have a high quality and well understood offer even if this meant a significant fall in numbers. If this is the agenda, however, government would do better to:

  • own up to it and
  • develop a new policy narrative to deal with all those groups with different but equally important training or educational needs.
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