Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

There is definitely an air of pyromania in the National Apprenticeship Service’s latest campaigns to promote apprenticeships.

After exhorting young people to ‘#FireIt Up’, they are now encouraged during National Apprenticeship Week to ‘#BlazeATrail’. However, the government’s skills strategy is looking increasingly burnt out and Edge’s latest report shows that the apprenticeship programme is turning to ashes.

It’s clear the government doesn’t have a hope in a pit of eternal fire of reaching its target of three million apprentices by 2020.

A third of apprenticeships are not completed, so even if there were three million starts, there would only be two million finishers.

Apprenticeships are great for young people. Being able to ‘earn while you learn’ means not accumulating the debt associated with going to university, and developing the critical workplace skills and gaining the experience to take you to the next level.

The charity Career Ready reports that there is a steady and significant increase in the number of the young people it places on paid internships opting for an apprenticeship – often with the firm they’re interning with – rather than university.

There are limitless success stories and advocates for how apprenticeships are a fantastic route into a career, a job or higher education. Edge’s own former apprentice, Dexter, completed his level 3 qualification in digital marketing and has now opted to pursue study via a degree apprenticeship.

Employers like apprentices

Jaguar Land Rover recruited nearly 200 of them last year. Our research repeatedly finds that employers value skills and experience above exam grades and qualifications. The proposition for young people and employers seems irresistible. It should all be good news.

So the findings in Edge’s latest report, Our Plan for Apprenticeships, make for disappointing reading. Almost 50% of apprenticeship starts are by those over the age of 25; two thirds are actually ‘conversions’ from other jobs. Alarmingly, an Ofsted investigation found that apprentices had been doing the job for more than a year and were not even aware they were on an apprenticeship.

The government drive to increase the number of apprentices has, not surprisingly, led to an expansion in the number of training providers, but in many cases standards fall short. English apprenticeships are shorter than in other countries; around 18 months here as opposed to two or three years in Switzerland, Austria or Germany.

It seems that once again we see grand gestures rather than a holistic approach bringing together education, business, skills and economic policy. The number of 16-24 year old apprentice starts actually fell last year to below that of 2011; something isn’t working and it’s not just the 314,412 NEETS.

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Expand the apprenticeship programme, put quality at the heart of the system

In our report, Edge advocates a number of measures to expand the apprenticeship programme and put quality at the heart of the system. Primarily we need to refocus the programme on 16-24 year olds; they benefit the most.

We need to introduce mentoring and allow more flexibility for employers so they can use some of their levy funding for paid internships, giving young people the grounding and preparation they need to make their apprenticeships a success.

Apprenticeships need greater depth and breadth in their scope so they prepare apprentices for a profession, not just a singular job. The narrow EBacc closes down choices and possibilities for many young people; we need a broader and more balanced curriculum and careers advice and guidance which includes information about apprenticeships.

We should introduce apprenticeships for 14-16 year olds and learn a lesson from Scotland and their highly successful foundation apprenticeships programme for 16-18 year olds.

As the Institute (previoulsy IfA) warns of an imminent over-spend of £0.5 billion, it makes no sense that many companies are not using their levy entitlement, while others are rebadging training of existing employees as apprenticeships, to claw it back.

We need to prioritise smaller businesses making it easier to recruit and implement an apprenticeship programme; an apprentice ‘in a box’.

We are demanding a lot of the apprenticeship system. We want it to provide career opportunities for young people; further social mobility; bridge the skills gap; drive the economy. If any of this is to happen we need to address the disconnect between education and business.

We need to take a holistic approach to learning and create a culture change from the classroom to the boardroom, which recognises quality apprenticeships as the opportunity they are.

Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

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