We need to focus on good apprenticeships

Expanding provision should not be at the expense of quality.

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.

David Cameron meets a Waitrose apprentice. Credit: Getty

Neil is the Senior Economist at The Work Foundation

 

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.