From education to employment

Five things that still need to happen to secure a world-beating apprenticeship system by 2030

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies and the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show

Apprenticeships, when done well, solve the productivity puzzle and help build a ladder of career opportunity for people in every local community.  However, Prof. Tom Bewick says there are 5 things that need to happen before apprenticeship in England can genuinely be called world-class. 

There’s enough time for England to be the best apprenticeship system globally, argues Professor Tom Bewick

In recent years it’s become almost a groundhog to write an article during National Apprenticeship Week for FE News.

I’m always delighted to get my scribe out, because it’s important to celebrate and acknowledge the thousands of employers and apprentices in England, who take part in this life-changing programme.

Apprenticeships, when done well, solve the productivity puzzle and help build a ladder of career opportunity for people in every local community.

In future years, I hope the whole of the United Kingdom will join in the annual celebrations, making it truly nationwide.

Skills and apprenticeships policy maybe fully devolved these days – although for some employers operating across these islands – many are left frustrated by the often complex political administrative boundaries they increasingly have to deal with.

How can England become the powerhouse of apprenticeship training in future?

For now, let’s look at how England can become that powerhouse of apprenticeship training in future.

The former skills minister, Anne Milton, was once asked at a conference what success looked like in apprenticeship. To paraphrase, she replied: “a long line of German policymakers outside the Department for Education, asking us how we did it.”

It reminds me of a great hero of mine; the German-born MP for Banbury, Sir Bernhard Samuelson (1820-1905).

Samuelson left school at 14, to work as an apprentice in his father’s engineering firm. Like our current secretary of state for education, Gillian Keegan MP, the young Samuelson was apprenticed in Liverpool.

Due to his Jewish grandfather being born in London, Samuelson was able to stand for Parliament as a British citizen. And while largely a forgotten person to modern historians, he was nevertheless a very important politician of his time  

He owned factories and blast furnaces in the manufacturing heartlands of Victorian England; and he forged close links throughout his life with industrialists on the continent. Samuelson helped establish some of the first technical institutes in the country; and City & Guilds would probably not exist in its present form if it was not for his sterling work.

He was most famous for chairing the select committee on scientific instruction, which concluded its work in July 1868.

Why I think Samuelson’s works are worth re-reading today, is that 155 years later, policymakers and legislators are still talking about many of the same issues!

At one level, it’s a bit depressing, that several generations a part, these two former members of Parliament – Samuelson and Milton – could still be found citing Germanic systems of apprentice training as the ‘gold-standard’ measure of success. 

Of course, they’re right.

Opportunities for Apprenticeships

Switzerland enables more than two-thirds of its teenagers to progress to high-quality, paid 4-year apprenticeships. In England, fewer than 23 per cent of under-19 year olds will get this kind of opportunity.

According to Ofsted, nearly a third of apprenticeship providers are rated ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ in 2021/22.

91 per cent of colleges deliver good or outstanding apprenticeship provision compared to just 75 per cent of independent training providers.

In every World Skills Competition since 1999 (when World Skills International was formed), Switzerland has usually finished in the top 10 competitor countries (and in the top 5 more often than not).

The UK team, although a strong performer since 2009, has never beaten a Swiss team in the total medals tally. World Skills UK has achieved a higher position than Germany on only one previous occasion.

Our highest table position in recent years is 7th place, achieved in Sao Paulo, in 2015.

Germany has a long tradition of craft skilled apprenticeships dating back to Samuelson’s time. The Germanic systems have always been adept at serving the needs of small and medium sized companies, called the Mittelstand.

Global benchmarks like World Skills Competitions matter

These global benchmarks like World Skills Competitions matter, because in the end, they are one of the few objective measures we have of knowing whether or not our own apprenticeship and skills model in England is really any good.

If we could secure a top five medal place in the next three or four World Skills International competitions – certainly the ones taking place over the rest of the decade – then it will reflect well on the new competency-based occupational standards that have been developed by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

Mediocrity is not the path to excellence

What we can’t afford to do is to continue to delude ourselves that mediocrity is somehow the path to excellence.

Moreover, there are at least five inter-related policy themes that will need to improve if we are to really inspire the German delegation arriving in 2030, wanting to know how we leapfrogged them in the international apprenticeship stakes.

It will require of policymakers, providers and employers:

  1. A relentless focus on apprenticeship quality.
  2. Simplification of bureaucratic processes and systems (including smarter regulation).
  3. Getting the funding incentives right (including reform of the Levy).
  4. Driving transparency in the timely release of performance data.
  5. Encouraging professional values that underscore high-trust, robust challenge, as part of a skills ecosystem.

Quality, Simplification, Incentives, Transparency and Trust.

I’ll be writing more about these issues in the months ahead.

But safe to say, that’s how I think we can put hand on heart and give every person in this country that wants an apprenticeship a ‘golden ticket’ to their future.

We’ve got no time to waste.

Happy National Apprenticeship Week!

Tom Bewick
By Professor Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies.

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