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Stephen Gardner, Director of Apprenticeships at the Learning and Skills Council writes exclusively for FE News, as winners of this year's National Apprenticeship Awards are announced.

Last night we announced winners of the 2007 national Apprenticeship Awards. England's top apprentices and apprentice employers were recognised at a glittering ceremony in London last night, hosted by TV presenter Nick Knowles.

The Awards are a fantastic opportunity for us to recognise the hard work and commitment of young people currently on, or who have recently completed an Apprenticeship, and employers who are successfully using Apprenticeships to improve business performance.

The quality of the entrants for this year's awards was outstanding. We received more than 1,000 entries from apprentices and employers in sectors ranging from Engineering and Construction, Food and Drink, to Health and Telecommunications to name but a few.

None of this could have been possible without the excellent work of training providers and colleges across the country.

The Awards are a positive sign of the outstanding contribution individuals and UK businesses are making through Apprenticeships to raise skills levels and improve productivity and competitiveness nationally.

Apprenticeships provide on-the-job training so individuals are continually learning the skills of their trade or profession, as well as the essential "soft skills" needed to succeed in the workplace. Two of this year's winners have proved that working closely with colleges and ensuring that their staff are fully trained, provide long term benefits to the company.

Farthings Veterinary Group in Horsham, West Sussex, was crowned Small Employer of the Year. The practice's approach is to train nurses to provide the best possible care for its patients and clients, working very closely with Chichester College. The training structure enables apprentices to learn theory one day a week at Chichester College, and combine this with the practical work experience they receive from the Farthings Veterinary Group. The Group strongly believes that the long term benefits of Apprenticeships vastly outweigh the time and money spent on training.

Winner in the Micro Employer category is Blue Flame Engineering Ltd, founded two years ago by Stuart Eakins. Stuart started as a small one-man business and grew to a four-man business following the recruitment of three apprentices. Working closely with Stockport College, Stuart has ensured that his apprentices are given the support to develop their business and marketing skills: "I am committed to see that my apprentices develop and gradually take over the reins of the business that is now 20 per cent owned by them. I view my apprentices as the future of Blue Flame".

As proof of Stuart's fantastic team spirit, Stockport College uses Blue Flame as an example to demonstrate what apprentices can achieve if they work hard and dedicate themselves to their craft.

Martin Rennison, engagement officer at Stockport College is a true advocate of Stuart's reward structure: "Blue Flame Engineering has developed into a model employer over the past two years. Stuart Eakins has encouraged his apprentices to develop honest values and true business ethics, and we use Blue Flame as a shining example to apprentices during their initial induction period at the College."

To accompany the awards the LSC has published a Best Practice Guide outlining how those entered the awards have shown innovation in recruitment, training, learner support and progression of interest to all who deliver apprenticeships, the Guide is available from the apprenticeship website at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

I would like to congratulate everyone who entered this year's awards, and thank them for their hard work and contribution to developing skills in the UK.

Winners in the employer category of the Apprenticeship Awards 2007 were:

· Large Employer of the Year (250+ employees) - British Telecom, London (Learning provider - Accenture (UK) Ltd)

· Medium Employer of the Year (50 "“ 249 employees) - Slack and Parr Ltd, Kegworth

· Small Employer of the Year (10 "“ 49 employees) - Farthings Veterinary Group, Horsham (Learning provider - Chichester College)

· Micro Employer of the Year (1 "“ 9 employees) - Blue Flame, Stockport (Learning provider - Stockport College)

And winners in the apprentice categories:

· Advanced Apprentice of the Year - Gareth Moor, Electrical engineering apprentice (Learning provider - Gateshead College)

· Apprentice of the Year - Jonathan Pearson, Food Manufacture apprentice (Learning provider - North Lancs Training Group)

· Young Apprentice of the Year - Abbigail Kewin, Tyne and Wear apprentice

· Personal Achiever of the Year - Zenel Lika, Mechanical Engineering apprentice (Learning provider - N.Warwickshire and Hinckley College)

Stephen Gardner, Director of Apprenticeships, LSC

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