From education to employment

We must restore the credibility, status, and effectiveness of the apprenticeship system

John Hayes, Conservative Shadow Minister for Vocational Education.

John Hayes, shadow minister for vocational education speaks to FE News about creating a more flexible, more straight-forward, and more demand driven Apprenticeship system, with employers in the driving seat. 

John Hayes MP, shadow minister for vocational education and Dr Scott Kelly, lecturer in British politics and contemporary history, both co-authors of the recent “TOWARDS A GOLD STANDARD FOR CRAFT” report on apprenticeships for The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) talk exclusively to FE News about Conservative further education policy.

‘Apprenticeship’ is an estimable brand, historically valued by employers, attractive to young people and assumed by the wider public to confer a high level of competence. Apprenticeships are also at the heart of vocational education, providing a bridge from school into skilled employment.

Yet today, apprenticeships are being devalued. For example, most people’s vision of an apprenticeship is of an eager young learner acquiring key competences by the side of an experienced craftsman in a valued skilled job. But the reality is very different.

We live in an age in which most apprenticeships are not completed successfully; where many apprenticeships contain little or no workplace element; where most are not directly mentored; and where some enjoy no employer engagement whatsoever.

This paper analyses the circumstances of ‘virtual apprentices’; explains what has gone wrong and points to how to improve things. We must, for those Britons whose aptitudes take them in this direction, and for the UK as a whole, restore the credibility, status, and effectiveness of the apprenticeship system.

We must establish professional apprenticeships.

John Hayes on apprenticeships:

“Conservative policy was launched against a background situation where there are declining numbers of apprenticeships and enrolment and where the nation’s skills compare unfavourably with our competitors. We believe that our apprenticeships need to be professionalised; they should be employer-based and should be mentored. They ought to have a significant workplace training element, and unless they have these things they really should not be called apprenticeships. Our professional apprenticeships should reassure both trainers and British business. We want to avoid them being little more than tick box tests conducted in classrooms”

On a report from the Conservative Vocational Skills Working Group published last month, which described the current system of vocational education as “an unresponsive, top-down bureaucracy”:

“The system is unresponsive to demand, and as a result, not well understood by employers or learners. It’s complex and esoteric and the [writers of the report] were looking for ways to create a system through their recommendations which was more flexible, more straight-forward, and more demand driven, with employers in the driving seat.”

On replacing the Learning Skills Council with a single system:

“John Redwood argues that the LSC would effectively be replaced by sector skills councils and I guess a kind of souped up forum which would both act as a conduit for feeding analysis of labour force needs, and saw what skills employers needed. As the bodies which work with providers, further education colleges and adult training providers met those needs, sector skills councils and employer-level organisations would both work with educators to guarantee quality and to ensure a good future between supply and demand.”

Adult learning:

“There is a misconception that adult learning is wholly recreational. In fact adult and community learning is often a route back to employment for those who have either been failed by the system, by school or want to return to work in later life. A decline of adult learning narrows this opportunity for re-engagement, but actually even if it is about things unrelated directly to employment, it has an immense value socially and culturally and its decline under this government could cause them embarrassment.”

Dilution of apprenticeship brand

According to Dr Scott Kelly, the dilution of the apprenticeship brand, which includes lower level qualifications, disguises the fact that fewer students are now being trained in intermediate skills.

“We are actually training fewer people at that level [i.e, level 2 and 3] than we were seven years ago. There’s been a shift in focus within the skills budget to basic and remedial training – we are talking about the entitlement to first level 2 qualification. Train to Gain, for example, is a level 2 programme, a GSCE equivalent. There’s a need for that and a lot of people leave school functionally innumerate, but if left to compete with countries that are providing high skills training and advanced vocational education then this isn”t going to solve our problem.”

The route from secondary education to apprenticeships and beyond

“There’s a need for a clear pathway. If you are 14 and you”re academic, then it’s very clear what you do – GCSEs, A-levels, and university – but if you”re more practically minded, it’s much less obvious. We did hope that the new specialised diplomas would provide that pathway. At the moment, it’s just not clear what options [vocational students] have. Unfortunately, the diplomas don”t seem to be sufficiently vocational. There’s a lot of theory and not much work-based training, and there doesn”t seem to be any at the lower level. They haven”t been integrated with apprenticeships. [You could do] a diploma, apprenticeship and a foundation degree and follow that pathway, but there’s no clear connection between those different qualifications. Whereas in other countries there’s a well respected route for practically-minded young people who want to do qualifications, in Britain there’s an awful lot of confusion. We have more young people doing academic qualification at A-level than in France and Germany, but we lag behind in vocational qualifications. That’s where the gap is.”

A more comprehensive careers advice service

Careers advice in other European countries is clearly focused in the classroom at an early age, so that young people have an idea of what their choices are and the options they have. In Britain it’s been integrated with other services, and to some extent de-professionalised.

Annabel Hardy

John Hayes MP is Shadow Minister for Vocational Education. He has been the Member of Parliament for South Holland and the Deepings since 1997 and has been on the Conservative front bench since 1999. He is a former Nottinghamshire Country Councillor and Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party. John is also co-chairman of the All Party Disability Committee. He is married with two young sons.

Dr Scott Kelly lecturers in British Politics and Contemporary History at New York University in London and is the author of The Myth of Mr Butskell: the Politics of British Economic Policy 1950-55 (Ashgate, 2002). From 2002 to 2005 he was a member of the Conservative Party Policy Unit.

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