The raft of OEDC surveys which were published at the end of last year and which saw the UK languishing towards the bottom of basic skills tables in developed countries, made sombre reading. Twenty years ago they would have been merely of passing interest, but now we live in a global economy where we compete not just for business but for skills. It is essential that we accept nothing but the best in terms of skill development and commit ourselves to the implementation of genuine world-class programmes.
That vision applies in particular to Apprenticeships. Over the last couple of years, we have made significant progress. Short-term Apprenticeships of six months or less have disappeared and by replacing the discredited Key Skills qualifications with Functional Skills, we have secured real improvements in literacy and numeracy skills amongst our young workers.
But this is only the beginning and there is far more work to be done. There are still too many employers whose main rationale for embracing Apprenticeships, is the prospect of "free training" and that thinking will not help us to build a world-class programme based around quality And engagement.
That is why, with some caveats, I broadly welcome the government's proposals for the reform of the Apprenticeship programme. The plans, based on the excellent reviews carried out separately by Doug Richard and Jason Holt, would put ownership and management of Apprenticeships fully in the hands of employers. The proposals have sparked a vigorous debate across the FE sector and I am disappointed that they have been so strongly opposed by many of my fellow training providers.
If Apprenticeships were merely another qualification, I would be unconcerned as to who "owned" them. However, they should be (and often are) far more than that. They are the foundation stones for a vocational career pathway and as such, are providing thousands of young people who may neither wish nor may be able to pursue the academic route, with a real alternative. Over the last few months, I have spoken to many Apprentices whose lives have been turned round through the opportunity to learn in this way. Now, instead of looking forward to at best a lifetime of intermittent employment, they are focused on the next stage of their career.
Whilst training providers have an important role to play, only employers can provide the long-term support required to build a successful vocational career, and as such I believe it is imperative that they are fully committed to the Apprenticeship programme, take responsibility for its management and make the appropriate investment.
One of the main arguments of the reform opponents is that "ownership" will trigger an avalanche of administration and bureaucracy thereby creating an intolerable burden for SMEs who will subsequently withdraw from the programme in large numbers. However, our experience strongly suggests that this will happen. Under these proposals, employers will be free to choose the providers who they believe best meet their needs and no doubt as part of that process, they will ask providers to quote for a range of services, including the administration of the programme. We already work with employers in this way and the arrangement is completely satisfactory. The vision of a cataclysmic fall in Apprenticeship numbers as a result of administration overload, is simply not sustainable.
That said, I do expect that there will be a temporary fall in Apprenticeship numbers as those employers who were there for the free government hand-outs, drop out of the programme. However, I think the slack will be quickly taken up as more employers join the Trailblazers programme and use their newly discovered freedoms to build a flexible framework which meets their specific needs.
I do understand the concerns of those people who oppose these reforms but I feel that they are based on a natural fear of change and a desire to retain control rather than a strategic analysis of our future skills needs. Change is always a challenging process, but when it comes to skill development, we simply cannot continue to accept the status quo if we are to compete in the global market place. Building a world-class Apprenticeship programme will never be easy, but that should not prevent us from making the changes that are essential if we are to achieve that goal.