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A is for Apprenticeships; M is for Must do betterDecember 2015

Written by Julia Evans, Chief Executive, BSRIA

There is a sense that apprenticeships have been around since the dawn of time. Once a thing of majesty with a 7 year bonded stretch awaiting the hapless individual, they have morphed over the years into a maligned term to describe the rebadging of in-work training for all staff, driven by government funding arrangements. Nevertheless, good quality apprenticeships are well embedded in the construction and engineering sector and the term itself is likely to be protected by statute.

Recent statements by Nick Boles (the Minister with responsibility for, amongst other things, apprenticeships and vocational training) have reported the plan to include legal protection for the term apprenticeships in the same way the term degree is protected. Mr Boles intends to bring the provision for this forward as part of the Enterprise Bill due to wend its way through the parliamentary system.

However welcome this element of the legislation might be, there are other issues of concern around apprenticeships, not least the continuing plan to alter funding arrangements to the disadvantage of many small businesses – the traditional home of many of these good quality apprenticeship placements.

However well protected the term, if employers are not being offered an attractive package in the first place then the Government’s target of 3 million apprentices by 2020 may be difficult to achieve. The essence of apprenticeships is not only the college tuition but also more importantly the structured work experience that makes the skill being learned in the class room live and breathe.

Apprenticeships are not the sole route to effective vocational education. The custodians and therefore guardians of much vocational education are the many excellent further education colleges situated up and down the country. Key for their funding is the number of students coming through their doors. They are deeply impacted by decisions taken by young people to stay on at sixth form rather than continue into vocational education at college. Such a decision is not always the right decision for more practically inclined students. As we know, sixth forms tend to concentrate (quite rightly) on more academic subjects. However a more practically based course might suit the young person better and provide better educational and training environments (workshops and work experience) tuned to the acquisition of a practically based skill. That vocational training is seen as second rate is a hangover from the misplaced government policy that sought to send the majority of young people into higher rather than further education.

As both teachers and students will tell you, the benefit of work experience is enormous and it forms a key part of the path which leads young people to take balanced and informed career decisions. However, there is a great shortage of placements with only 20% of companies offering this opportunity. With an impending skill shortage it seems sensible for firms to make every effort to encourage students to experience their work places as, after all, it may be that the young person who comes on work experience ends up being a valued member of the workforce.

However, there is more needed if the upskilling, right skilling and future skilling of young people is to form part of the investment in UK plc that it so needs to be.

Wholescale review of the funding arrangement of further education is well overdue, with current rules reflecting past years’ performance rather than being geared to future demand. Whilst an apportionment methodology is essential, there must be more creative ways of helping educational establishments prepare for future delivery.

With 79% of employers reporting difficulties in recruitment (CIPD) and much discussion in the press about future skills shortages, the pressure is now being felt by employers to be active in developing and seeking staff. Sitting back and hoping it will all turn out well is unlikely to be a successful strategy for business stability, let alone growth.

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