From education to employment

Quality apprenticeships – time to trust the experts

Prime Ministerial overviews rarely fail to feature apprenticeships. The aspiration that school leavers should either go into HE or start an apprenticeship, along with the manifesto commitment promising three million more apprenticeships by 2020, are clear public statements of intent and ambition.

While the government knows that it will be judged by whether it achieves this target, it also understands that the ambition is really about quality and transforming the apprenticeship programme so that it delivers the potential benefits to the economy and to the life chances of young people. If there was any need for a reminder, it came in the recent NAO report (

I’ve met many people who are passionate about transforming apprenticeships, who are experts as well as ambassadors. Many are employers but some are specialist professionals, academics and skills leaders. I have drawn together their advice into a book that describes the current state of apprenticeships and priorities for the future.

The book, A Race to the Top: Achieving Three Million More Apprentices by 2020, is published by Winchester University Press. It concludes that while apprenticeships are in a good place today, benefiting from increasing employer leadership and government prioritisation, there is plenty still to do if we are to transform apprenticeships for the future. This means tackling critical business skills shortages and attracting more young people whose social mobility would be helped by making smart vocational choices.

David Russell, CEO of the Education and Training Foundation, writing personally describes the challenge in respect of young people as creating the ‘escape velocity’ that enables more of them to break out of current social expectations and for young people with choices to choose apprenticeships. A new positive social narrative is needed that makes an apprenticeship right for your own children and not just for other people’s.

The prospect of apprentices going to university later if they want to do so is an important part of creating this new social narrative. This has real impact with most young people and importantly their parents. It is therefore good to see completing the map of Higher Apprenticeships being prioritised by the government, employers and the HE and vocational skills sectors.

The quality of the experience for young people and employers is vital. Developing and using best vocational teaching practice is essential in order to maximise apprenticeships opportunities.

While feedback from employers and apprentices is positive, issues highlighted affecting the ‘brand’ need to be tackled resolutely. The NAO report spotlights  significant numbers of apprentices not appreciating they are on an apprenticeship and not getting sufficient off-the-job training. We need to know if this is a quality issue or one of reporting and quickly resolve it.

Similarly we need to keep listening to those people who want to engage with apprenticeships but do not, including SMEs who need more hands-on support than modest extra funding can provide and employers calling for simplicity and stability. Greater consistency across the UK is increasingly being raised by employers.

As drivers of productivity improvements, especially post-Brexit, apprenticeships will need not only to address issues of general skills supply but also to make a direct contribution to acute skill shortages and areas of projected growth.

In my book, Sir Mike Rake, Chairman of BT Group, explains the scale of the challenge for the tech economy and the potential demand for higher skills – 300,000 extra recruits by 2020. Ex-CBI Director-General John Cridland describes a desirable future virtuous circle: one in which skills and productivity boost one another as each succeeds and propels the other.

Apprenticeships need to demonstrate that they can be an important part of providing this propulsion. The good news is that those ready to advise on the future of apprenticeships and at the heart of developing solutions for their own businesses and sectors believe they will.

Time to listen to experts indeed.

David Way is Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester. A Race to the Top: Achieving Three Million More Apprentices by 2020, is available to buy

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