Apprenticeships and vocational education and training continue to appear on the political agenda but as so often occurs a number of policies are emanating from government that will impede their implementation. If the government is really committed to introducing a comprehensive high quality set of apprenticeship programmes then a totally new paradigm needs to be introduced with none of the historical apprenticeship practices. One crucial element in creating a more balanced economy with a revitalised and effective manufacturing base is a highly qualified workforce. This is where apprenticeships play a key role and they must become the top priority on the education and training agenda. I feel that if this is to become a reality the apprenticeship programmes must be preferentially treated in order to attract and retain participants. Apprenticeships along with technical and vocational education and training have been perceived for too long as second-class when compared with the supposed academic programmes such as GCSE/GCEs/Degrees. Employers must be at the centre of the development of apprenticeship programmes and their providers must not be exposed to inspection regimes currently operated by Ofsted as their model is inappropriate. However policy decisions already made by the government will undermine their introduction, effectiveness and the creation of a truly alternative career route to the so-called academic programmes. Some of these deterrent and destructive elements include:
(i) The introduction of a loan regime for apprenticeship programmes
(ii) The failure to fully recognise the practicalities that will confront employers if they are to lead the development and management of apprenticeships
(iii) The failure to introduce a totally new paradigm in the operation and management of apprenticeships and once and for all disconnect them from the academic route; failure to introduce more appropriate inspections regimes for both employers and other providers of work based programmes. The latest example is the proposal to replace functional skill mathematics with GCSEs mathematics.
(iv) The failure to introduce a comprehensive all-age IAG system and an extended awareness raising campaign in the media about the importance of apprenticeships.
(i) One aspect that specifically should not be introduced is a loan regime and yet that is exactly what the government has done, mirroring the model for HE students with all the attendant problems that has and will cause in the future. Apprentices aged over 24 starting on level 3 or 4 programmes can take out a loan for their tuition fees and the on-job training if the employer cannot or will not cover these costs. The apprentices will start paying back the loan when their income reaches £21,000 per annum. Any loan scheme will most certainly deter people of all ages from enrolling on these programmes; quite rightly they will be reluctant to incur such debts. In particular the new Advanced and Higher-level apprenticeship programmes must encourage and attract committed and enthusiastic people who will include precisely those who would have already been deterred by the HE loan regimes. As a result of a very low take up (just 569 advanced learner loans taken up in nine months since their introduction) the government have said the policy was a mistake and intend to discontinue the loan system but so far nothing has happened. However if the loan regime ceases key questions need to be answered e.g. what will the funding mechanisms be for apprenticeships during the continuing period of austerity!
(ii) The problem with placing employers at the centre of the apprenticeship programmes in the government’s current model is more associated with the feasibilities and practicalities that will confront employers – many employers do not possess the resources and administrative infra-structure necessary and at present are trying to ride out the financial crisis. If the government is serious they must support the employers with long term and sustainable strategies and funding and equally importantly recognise their problems. Also the current inspection regimes conducted by Ofsted are totally inappropriate for work based training e.g. making grades 1 and 2 as the chief criteria for accrediting training centres. Even the latest concessions about continuing to accredit providers who drop to grade 3 will still be subjected to additional conditions and monitoring. Many providers and employers are being deterred from getting involved with apprenticeship and other training programmes. Many employers being excluded have excellent networks with training providers and other employers, which is an essential feature for successful work based training.
(iii) A classic example of the inability to divorce the apprenticement programme from the academic route is the intention to replace functional skills competence with GCSE mathematics and English. Functional skills reflected what work based students required and were therefore fit for purpose as they were delivered in real or realistic working environments and developed relevant applied skills as opposed to sterile classroom context exercises. If I were a gambling person I would put money on that functional skills will be dropped and GCSE maths will be put in their place – a crying shame!
(iv) Equally important, as has been said many times, an effective system of Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) has to be introduced which provides valid, honest broker ship and up to date data and information on the economic and business futures open to people of all ages. A recent CIPD survey highlighted again the inadequacies of IAG programmes and the lack of involvement of employers with schools and colleges. Survey findings showed that 58% of employers did not engage with schools and equally worrying 24% of employers interviewed had received no applications from 16-24 year olds for employment or apprenticeships again reflecting an information gap between education and the world of work.