We need to focus on good apprenticeships

Expanding provision should not be at the expense of quality.

David Cameron meets a Waitrose apprentice. Credit: Getty

Young people in the UK are being squeezed on two fronts. They face a difficult labour market, with youth unemployment now over a million and continuing to rise. And, for those who don’t go to University, the education system does not always perform well. In her review of vocational education, Alison Wolf argued that many - but by no means all - vocational qualifications offered ‘little or no labour market value’.

In response, politicians have rediscovered apprenticeships. There are good reasons for this. Ministers like to announce impressive numbers of new apprentices starting work. They feel like they’re addressing a current problem (youth unemployment) while solving a long-standing one (education for those who don’t go to University). And apprenticeships have a reassuring retro sound – reminiscent of the past glories of manufacturing or the strength of the German economy. They are the most recognisable and respected brand left in vocational education. But how exactly will apprenticeships address youth unemployment and the shortage of meaningful vocational qualifications?

Nobody questions that, in theory, apprenticeships are a good thing. But they are diverse and some apprenticeships are better than others. While apprenticeships are an important part of efforts to address the UK’s economic problems, the pay off will be in the long-term only. And, unless they are handled cautiously, political efforts to expand the system may reduce the quality.

In the UK, we tend to be sniffy about vocational education. The strength of our Universities, and declining employment in manufacturing, means we have favoured other parts of the system. While the UK provides clear and well structured pathways into work for those who do well at school, routes are less clear for those who don’t. Past attempts at reform have often been fudged. As the Wolf report argued, many vocational qualifications in the UK are essentially ways to postpone young people’s entry into the labour market.

Apprenticeships are good when they provide a route into employment and meaningful training for those who do not want to go to University. They offer vocational training, alongside genuine mentoring and career progression, which can help young people enter the labour market and succeed throughout their careers.

This does not mean they can, or should, be seen as a solution to youth unemployment. The ‘gold standard’ apprenticeships at Rolls Royce or BT tend to be oversubscribed many times over – Michael Gove has argued that some are harder to get into than Oxbridge. This is good as it suggests they are valuable qualifications. But it also makes them unlikely to help the young people least likely to enter the labour market. Those leaving school with poor prospects are as unlikely to get into the top apprenticeships as they are into the top universities.

But there are apprenticeships on offer at many levels. The most advanced apprenticeships – Higher Level Apprenticeships – are the equivalent of a foundation degree. Intermediate Apprenticeships are the equivalent of a few GCSE’s. Some apprenticeship programmes successfully link meaningful work and valuable training, others don’t.

Some have raised concerns that as the number of new apprenticeships expands, fewer of them will be of a high quality. In February, David Cameron proudly announced that the numbers of young people starting apprenticeship in 2011 was 63 per cent higher than in 2010. Yet recent stories of poor quality apprenticeships in low skilled employment, with cursory opportunities for training, threaten to devalue the brand. The recent controversy around Morrison’s was one example.

Alongside such anecdotal evidence, there has been a measurable change in the type of apprenticeships which are underway. As the number of new starts has increased, the average length has decreased: according to the National Audit Office, 19 per cent of apprenticeships started in 2010/11 lasted less than six months, up from 12 per cent in 2008/9. In response, the government has announced that new apprenticeships will have to last 12 months or more. But other issues, such as quality of training, remain problems.

Vocational education matters – and this is why keeping up quality is so important. And few doubt that apprenticeships, when done well, are good. Apprenticeships are often a good pathway for young people into work, ensuring that they can develop meaningful skills alongside the work experience which is crucial in today’s labour market. But in a rush to increase quantity there is a risk that quality may be affected. Given the lack of options for young people in the labour market, that would be a bad thing.