From education to employment

Apprenticeships and education

David Phillips is vice president of Pearson Work Based Learning & Colleges

The political race is on with the election in about 6 weeks. The economy, the NHS and immigration seem to be taking centre stage for the politicians and electorate overall but perhaps not surprisingly a recent survey put ‘improving our education system’ a close fourth for voters aged 18-24. The skills agenda has not been forgotten in this with all three major parties supporting the role of apprenticeships in developing the skills required for employment and growth, both national and personal, and making a range of commitments to developing the apprenticeship offer.

National Apprenticeship Week was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate this. The pledge from the Conservatives was for 3 million apprenticeships by the end of the next parliament, Labour focussed on quality and a pledge that as many young people leaving school or college who go on to university would go into an apprenticeship, the Liberal Democrats promised a UCAS-style admissions system for apprentices and incentives for employers to take on 16 and 17 year olds. The recent budget also had a boost for potential apprentices with the announcement of a 20% increase in their minimum wage.

So we are all agreed that apprenticeships are good for learners, business and the economy overall. However, for many, apprenticeships continue to be seen as a B road to success with academic study and higher education continuing to be the preferred choice. Attitudes are changing but how do we ensure that apprenticeships and other forms of work based learning are given their rightful place as a valued and valuable choice? At the Voice of Apprenticeships conference in National Apprenticeship Week I set out 6 areas which need to be addressed.

  • A better blend – academic or vocational should not be a choice but need to be seen as part of the same education to employment journey. Employers of all sizes need people with the competencies, knowledge, behaviours and work experience to be effective in the workplace. This requires both academic and vocational learning, so why do we continue to separate the two? In other jurisdictions, for example Switzerland, integration of academic and vocational education have proven to be a highly successful way of preparing learners for employment.
  • Employers at the heart – employers must be incentivised to become part of an integrated and structured education system not an adjunct to education. Fulfilling employment is the ultimate goal of all leavers of education.
  • Apprenticeships are one piece of the jigsaw – apprenticeships cannot hope to supply all the answers and should not be seen as a panacea for youth unemployment or closing skills gaps. In-work training of all types is a valuable means of developing work-related skills. Pre-apprenticeships programmes, including Traineeships, need to become integrated and more clearly defined.
  • Small business engagement – the benefits of work-based learning are for all sizes of business but smaller enterprises need extra incentives to take on learners. While some incentives exist, the perceived bureaucracy associated with apprenticeships needs to be tackled. Compulsory cash contributions even when offset against incentives are not going to increase engagement. The small enterprise community needs support from government and providers to make their experience a positive one.
  • English and maths – while the ambition to raise achievement levels in GCSE maths and English is one I support, GCSE is not the only answer. Assessments, like Functional Skills which have vocational or work-related content, should not be seen as stepping stones but as equally valid and reliable measures of an individual’s skills.
  • Funding – if employers are really in the driving seat, then let them decide where it goes. The latest announcement on apprenticeship funding via a voucher system seems to suggest that the employer will draw down the funding with the money going to the provider. However, we will have to wait for the detail.

BIS has just released an interim report evaluating the Apprenticeship Trailblazer programme. The report highlights some ‘risks to success’ some of which mirror the points I have already made but also highlights the urgent need for clarity on governance, assessment and standards.
Apprenticeships are key to driving the skills agenda and are an essential part of economic success so it is critical that we get them right. Making vocational learning and employment an integral part of main stream education will benefit the individual, business and the country and is something we should all strive for.

David Phillips is vice president of Pearson Work Based Learning & Colleges

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