From education to employment

Manifestos and Skills – 2015

David Phillips, Vice President, Pearson Work Based Learning & Colleges

All the major parties have now published their manifestos and within these there are sections on employment and skills. Encouraging I hear you say but the devil is, as always, in the detail. It’s not necessarily what is mentioned in the manifestos but what isn’t that gives some hint of what lies behind the headlines.

All three major parties remain committed to developing and growing apprenticeships. All three are committed to increasing quality and numbers of both learners and businesses. All three agree that there needs to be a trusted vocational route. However, all three seem to be focussing their attention on higher levels. We have a guarantee of an apprenticeship for every school leaver who gets the grades, an expansion of the number of degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships and the rolling out of many more degree Apprenticeships.

These may be great ambitions as they all support learner progression, but where do the 148,000 learners (60%) who started a Level 2 Intermediate Apprenticeship in the first two quarters of 14/15 fit into this? Some will indeed progress to the higher levels but many will not. It also seems unlikely that an increase in apprentice numbers will happen without this intermediate stage.

Many of the learners at this intermediate stage have failed, or been failed by, the academic pathway yet have found success at this level in a high quality vocational programme. Many will either not wish to, or be able to, progress beyond this stage but their success should not be diminished by excluding them or creating a barrier to achievement. Businesses continue to value their intermediate apprentices alongside their higher level counterparts.

All learners need a starting point and for many entering a post 16 vocational programme this is at Level 2. Whether a successful intermediate level learner can be identified as having served a full apprenticeship is an area of considerable debate. I firmly believe they can but whatever position you take we must all agree that there needs to be clear recognition that they have achieved, perhaps for the first time in their life. The essence of a world class vocational system is that it is inclusive and empowering as well as demanding and rigorous with the latter two elements not being simply the domain of higher levels.

The manifestos also highlight the need for more businesses to engage with apprenticeships and propose a range of measures to achieve this: more control over standards; the expansion of employment allowances for SMEs to include the 19-24 age range; a requirement for firms getting a major government contract and every large employer hiring skilled workers from outside the EU. All positive messages but what is missing from this is the pivotal role that other organisations play in making apprenticeships work. The success of apprenticeships also relies on those with the expertise in delivery and those who ensure that the industry standards are assessed appropriately, applied consistently and maintained over time. This is not simply a government-business compact but requires collaboration across a number of partners.

Whoever wins the upcoming election will support apprenticeships which is good news for all those thousands of learners who prefer this learning and development pathway. However, an incoming minister will need to consider carefully how best to develop a truly world class programme which incorporates some of the principles adopted by those countries whose apprenticeship programmes are internationally recognised as best-in-class.

David Phillips is vice president of Pearson Work Based Learning & Colleges

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