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Comment: 'We must not let apprenticeship quality decline in order to take the path of least resistance'

The Association of Colleges' senior skills manager, Teresa Frith, warns of the risks posed by the government's ambitious target of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2015

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The Association of Colleges' senior skills manager, Teresa Frith, warns of the risks posed by the government's ambitious target of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2015

The sums have been done and we know just how challenging the target of achieving 3 million apprenticeships in five years set by the government will be. It means creating roughly 1,500 apprentices every day for five years. In reality, this is a vast increase in number achieved in the last parliament. It’s daunting enough without a complete reworking of the way in which apprenticeships are to be funded, developed and administered. So yes, very challenging, but surely worth aiming for?

We may question some of the detail, but we all believe that apprenticeships are a key element in achieving economic growth and productivity. So what needs to happen for us to believe that the target is attainable?

This would break down into three elements:

  • Supply of (ideally) young people who are ready and able to become an apprentice
  • Supply of jobs with an apprenticeship opportunity
  • Effective and supportive infrastructure

In terms of young people, we need to be confident that schools are providing information and (perhaps more importantly) encouragement to their students to consider apprenticeships as a real alternative to the academic route. The lack of joined-up thinking between the Work Programme, traineeships and apprenticeships also has to be challenged. Not all young people are immediately ready to tackle an apprenticeship, and it would be unhelpful to force them into an ill-fitting apprenticeship just to meet a self-imposed target. We need to spend time and resources on preparing young people to succeed on apprenticeships, not just through traineeships, but with a broader pre-apprenticeship offer.

Without a job, there is no apprenticeship, so we are seeking to create three million new job opportunities with apprenticeships. This is arguably a more daunting challenge than preparing three million people to become apprentices. About 85 per cent of employers do not take on apprentices. Will employers come willingly or will they need sticks and carrots? Trying to "sell" an apprenticeship to an employer who doesn’t recognise the value of a trained workforce is bit like insisting that people without a driving licence should buy a Porsche. The government is going to insist on public sector apprenticeship targets, which could help, as could talking to employers with large supply chains insisting their chain gets involved. The training levy used in the construction industry works well – you get your money back if you train; if you don’t, you subsidise those who do.

The importance of developing the necessary infrastructure that will bring the employer, the apprentice and the college/provider together to successfully deliver the apprenticeship cannot be underestimated. We need to build capacity and support around apprentices to guarantee their success. We also need to ensure that, at the higher levels, we develop "proper" apprenticeships and not a degree with associated work experience. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embed an enduring apprenticeship infrastructure that will rival the "academic" route of A levels and a three-year full-time degree at university and be viewed as a credible pathway to improved job prospects and earnings. 

The Association of Colleges is working on this agenda; a trial of the development of training provider groups that cut across the further/higher education divide is already under way. We want to support employers in their work and to help colleges transition to apprenticeship standards. The enormity of this task alone should not be underestimated.

There needs to be funding "in the pot" for creating all of these apprenticeships in five years and there also needs to be significant investment in the development and capacity of the apprenticeship/employer infrastructure if we are to succeed.

Excellent apprenticeships will contribute to economic growth and improved productivity and significantly enhance 3 million apprentices’ future careers.  But we must not let quality decline in order to take the path of least resistance towards the target; otherwise, there will be a hollow ring to hitting the three-million target.  

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