Apprenticeships are seen as the jewel in the crown of technical education in the UK. While they are generally perceived positively by the businesses and apprentices involved, and some significant progress has been made in recent years, there is no doubt that this particular jewel risks becoming significantly tarnished.
Our evidence shows that, with the rapid changes of government policy and numerical targets for
apprenticeships, quantity has been set as the driving force for the programme, at the expense
of quality. Even so, the recent reforms have caused a significant reduction in starts leaving the government way off track for its own three million target.
At the same time the demographics of apprenticeships have changed markedly, with a huge growth in those aged over 25. Two-thirds of new apprentices are conversions from existing employees.
Completion rates have also plateaued at around two-thirds, meaning that even if the government’s three million apprenticeship starts were achieved, this would lead to just two million completions.
English apprenticeships are narrower, shorter and involve less on-the-job training and less general education than other leading systems. Meanwhile, smaller businesses are finding it harder than ever to engage with the development of standards and the delivery of apprenticeships.
These issues are reinforced by messages from leading researchers, which show that more needs to be done to address misconceptions and stereotypes associated with apprenticeships and prepare young people to compete for these opportunities.
They suggest that the new apprenticeship standards may be more restrictive than expansive, preparing individuals for narrow occupations and that large employers have dominated the development process. They question the amount of on-the-job training in English apprenticeships when compared to international benchmarks and show that the economic value of apprenticeships is significantly greater when undertaken by younger people and those new to job roles – the opposite of where the recent growth has taken place.
Apprenticeships are a vital part of the technical education landscape, but they have the potential to be even more than they currently are. We must refocus apprenticeships as intensive training for those aged 16-24 or who are entirely new to a job role. We must drive the system on quality not quantity, with an end to arbitrary numerical targets. We must broaden the base of apprenticeship training, ensuring that every apprenticeship provides the transferable skills required in our ever changing labour market. In the next five years, I want to see many more Higher Education providers in the UK offering young people degree apprenticeships as a fast track into their chosen career.
LORD BAKER OF DORKING CH