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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder