A plan for apprenticeship success

The introduction of a ‘degree-level’ vocational qualification should raise the prestige of learning a trade, but what else can be done to develop the skilled workforce needed to drive economic growth? By Janet Murray

At the table

Sue Littlemore (chair) Education journalist
Jan Hodges Chief executive, Edge Foundation
Steve Rothberg Pro vice-chancellor (enterprise), Loughborough University
Andy Westwood Chief executive, Guild HE
Marion Plant Principal and chief executive, North Warwickshire & Hinckley College
Bill Twigg Development director, Semta
Nigel Whitehead Group managing director, programmes and support, BAE Systems
David Curwen Officer commanding the apprenticeship management team, RAF
Tom Wilson Director, unionlearn
Peter Forbes Associate director, employability, CIHE
Chris Cherry Executive director, strategy and business development, LSIS
Richard Hamer Education director, BAE Systems
Paul Jackson Chief executive, Engineering UK
Toby Peyton-Jones Director of human resources, Siemens
David Hughes Chief executive, NIACE (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education)
Helen Higson Senior pro vice-chancellor, Aston University
Jenny Westworth Mechanical manufacturing engineer, BAE Systems
Tony Lau Walker Chief executive and commissioner, Eastleigh College and UKCES
Debra Humphris pro vice-chancellor (education), University of Southampton
José Lopes Head of technical excellence, Jaguar Land Rover

In a white paper published in November 2010, the government outlined its vision for a further education sector that would drive economic recovery by putting learners at the heart of the system. The strategy, known as Skills for Sustainable Growth, also emphasised the need to build the prestige and reputation of apprenticeships and other vocational qualifications by getting employers more involved with the design and delivery of new courses.

But according to a roundtable debate, hosted by the Guardian in association with BAE Systems, vocational education is still seen by many as “second best” to academic study. The roundtable was held under the Chatham House rule, which allows comments to be reported without attribution to encourage a frank debate.

“In the US, academic and vocational are different sides of one coin … in the UK they are on different sides of the fence,” said one participant. “There is a huge cultural issue in this country about vocational education and training,” said another. “When the A-level results come out in August, there is always tremendous media coverage, usually young girls with their five A*s or whatever … so the general messages one gets are really all about GCSEs and A-level.”

Those who took part in the discussion also considered how education institutions and businesses can work together to address current skills gaps and ensure the workforce has the right skills for the jobs that might exist in the future.

Training programmes

Despite government investment – about £3bn to date – the perception that apprenticeships are “for someone else’s children” is commonplace, it was argued. While one participant blamed employers for “setting degrees as the gold standard”, others felt the reasons were far more complex.

The recent media storm surrounding short apprenticeship programmes – the subject of a recent BBC Panorama documentary – has created a stigma around apprenticeships and “damaged the brand”, it was said. The programme highlighted examples of training providers who were offering government-funded apprenticeships that could be completed in as little as 12 weeks, which critics argue is not nearly enough time to acquire the skills needed to learn and practise skills to a high standard.

Others blamed the lack of parity between vocational and academic qualifications. Apprenticeships are not currently included in the Ucas tariff (the system used for assessing entry to university), which can be off-putting for prospective learners. But the recent introduction of a level 6, degree-equivalent apprenticeship should have a role to play in raising the prestige and profile of apprenticeships, the roundtable heard.

Economic success is far more closely linked with investment in vocational skills than academia, the roundtable heard, so “universities should not be the only game in town”. But some contributors pointed out that many higher education institutions are now offering a much broader curriculum that includes employability, entrepreneurial and other transferable skills.

The roundtable also heard how perceptions of vocational skills can be largely dependent on geographical location. In areas where there are big engineering firms that employ lots of apprentices (such as Barrow-in-Furness), young people, teachers and their families tend to be far more knowledgeable and enthusiastic about vocational qualifications. The reality is “the bulk of employment opportunities in this country are [provided by] small employers who are either unwilling or unable to take on apprentices”, it was said. Some participants argued that many SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are put off by the idea of bureaucracy and the time needed to invest in training an apprentice. Others will only recruit people with experience, an approach that creates a “catch-22” for people trying to get on the first rung of the career ladder.

There was criticism at the roundtable of the education secretary, Michael Gove, who recently said that A-levels should be designed by universities. “When the education secretary says that the problem with GCSEs and A-levels is that they are not designed by universities, you start to worry about a systemic approach to developing the future workforce.”

There was further criticism of schools for not giving young people enough information about their career choices. “What are schools for?” asked one participant. “Are they to provide the workforce? Are they a babysitting service? And what is the education for? Is it to provide people to go to university? Because that’s what it seems to be geared towards.” A school system “which forces children to jump through hoops and take as many GCSEs as possible” has taken the place of practical education in schools, said one participant, meaning many young people leave school without the skills that “get them closer to the workplace”, said another.

But teachers are not necessarily to blame, it was argued. The introduction of the English Baccalaureate (which measures pupils’ progress according to the number of A* to C grades they achieve in English, maths, a science, a language and a humanities subject) has put schools under increasing pressure to get results in a narrow range of academic qualifications, the roundtable heard. Many teachers are “actively dissuaded” from talking to students about vocational qualifications and careers by their senior managers “because it would reflect badly in school league tables”.

There was agreement at the debate that partnership working, among schools, colleges, universities and employers, is vital for promoting economic growth. While the roundtable heard many examples of good practice in this area, including technical colleges and schools which have excellent links with employers, a more consistent approach is needed, it was said.

But care must be taken to ensure partnership working of this kind does not exclude young people and adults who are disconnected from the learning, skills and employment sector, it was said. “There is a massive jump to those who are second or third generation unemployed,” suggested one participant. “They will never come into contact with any employer activity and their children are essentially consigned to the scrapheap by the age of 16. They are not just Neets [not in education, employment or training], they are Neets with an extended separation from the workplace – and nothing from the careers service, nothing that has been put in place from government funding is currently in place to help them.”

As a result, there is a real need to “galvanise” employers, particularly in SMEs, to recognise their responsibilities, it was said. And all businesses – large or small – should be working closely with further education institutions and training providers to help them determine what skills might be required from the future workforce, the roundtable heard.

Some participants pointed to the example of Germany, where membership of regional business forums is compulsory. Others suggested that greater investment in training could be encouraged through government procurement. Under this kind of arrangement, any organisation awarded a large government contract would be required to take on apprentices, work with schools or offer practical support with career guidance. “Many big, private companies already do this and it’s very effective,” said one contributor. “Things like that could do more than anything else to reform the attitude of employers and drive a more realistic understanding of vocational careers and how important they are in terms of paid jobs.”

Key discussion points

• Vocational skills and qualifications are still seen by some as ‘second best’ to academic study.

• Concerns about short apprenticeships have created a stigma around the apprenticeship brand.

• The recent introduction of the level 6, degree-equivalent apprenticeship should have a significant impact on the status of the qualification.

• In areas where there are large apprenticeship employers, perceptions of vocational qualifications are more favourable.

• Bureaucracy and a shortage of time are the reasons many SMEs give for not taking on apprentices.

• All businesses – regardless of their size – need to work in partnership with further and higher education institutions, schools and other education providers.

• Employers should be involved in developing qualifications – not just universities.

• An increasingly narrow curriculum – which has an emphasis on academic study – is taking the place of practical education in schools.

• Young people and adults who are disconnected from the learning, skills and employment sector should not be excluded from the skills debate.

Paul Champion
Strategic Project Manager

Mobile: 07540 704920

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