Luke Raikes: Current apprenticeship policy is failing on its own terms

The Government’s definition of ‘apprenticeships’ stretches credibility and degrades their quality, says Luke Raikes

RNLI apprenticeship programme

At their best, apprenticeships can enable people to set out on a high-skilled, well-paid career. Many employers and millions of employees benefit from them: they deliver jobs with good pay and conditions and highly productive workers for businesses, contributing to stronger local economies across the country.

And of course they come into their own as an investment in young school leavers. A young person is far more likely to be employed and to earn higher wages throughout their life if they have completed a high-level apprenticeship. Their association with young people is also why apprenticeships are so politically popular – which explains why, while adult skills will be cut severely, apprenticeships funding will be protected.



Surprising, therefore, that nowadays the vast majority – two-thirds – of apprentices were merely converted from staff already employed; striking, that since 2010, 42% of new apprenticeship starts were for people aged 25 or older; and shocking, that in 2014, the Government’s own survey found that 14% of apprentices – and almost a quarter of those aged under 19 – were not being paid the minimum wage to which they’re entitled.

It’s true that a changing economy has in turn changed the type of skills people need – but not only is apprenticeship policy failing to adapt to these changes, it’s often creating new problems. In particular, the obsession with ever-higher numbers of apprentices is at odds with the need to improve the quality of provision and – given that it’s so much easier to convert older, already employed staff – chasing such a target could also work to deprive young people of opportunity.

The Government’s new ‘earn or learn’ taskforce must realise that current apprenticeships policy is failing on its own terms, with a cost to both opportunity and productivity.

Part of the solution has to be tightening the definition of apprenticeships to improve their quality: the lower (ie intermediate)-level courses should no longer be defined as an ‘apprenticeship’ – this term should refer only to the higher and advanced level qualifications – and apprenticeships should be prioritised for young school leavers.

What are currently defined as lower-level apprenticeships need public investment, but these should instead be classed as pre-apprenticeships, which build up to the more challenging qualifications. Upskilling older people who are in work is vital, but to include them in apprenticeship figures stretches the definition past its breaking point.

While significant, these changes constitute only a part of the reform needed. The case for devolving power is particularly strong in the case of apprenticeship policy – where the role of local government as stewards of their local economy is essential and unrivalled. Local authorities are already acting on the periphery of the apprenticeship system, but by working across administrative boundaries – and with the full support of central government agencies – they could do far more.

Through local ‘Apprenticeship Hubs’ they should be charged primarily with those tasks everyone knows are essential, but are slipping through the fingers of central government agencies: careers advice, work experience, and fine-tuning both pre-apprenticeship support and apprenticeship provision to meet the needs of young people and local employers alike.

So while central government needs to get a firm grip on standards and quality, to realise the full potential of apprenticeships there needs to be a strong push from below, through devolution and collaboration between local and central government. Only then will apprenticeships once again become a route from education into work that is held in universally high esteem by both employers and young people


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