The proportion of apprenticeships taken up by under- 19s fell dramatically last year and now makes up less than a third of the total. But plans revealed this week aim to halt the decline by offering apprenticeships in schools for the first time.
Aston University Engineering Academy in Birmingham, one of the new breed of university technical colleges (UTCs), has announced proposals for students to undertake apprenticeships with employment at utility companies such as E.ON.
The move was welcomed by Education Secretary Michael Gove. "I hope more businesses and schools will work together in a similar way, creating opportunities for young people to gain the skills and knowledge that employers need," he said.
The announcement marks a significant development for UTCs, which were originally designed to offer full-time education rather than a blend of work and training. Though legally designated as schools, UTCs have the advantage of a greater vocational orientation and links with employers. Several are sponsored by FE colleges, but Aston, which opens in September, will be the first backed by a higher education institution.
The proposal is also another nail in the coffin of the diplomas developed under the last Labour government, which were a central part of the curriculum in older UTCs.
Offering apprenticeships may be a step too far for most comprehensives, but Alison Halstead, the pro vice-chancellor at Aston University who led the development of the engineering academy, said that UTCs were uniquely well placed to support them.
"I think we will see the vast majority of UTCs having three routes: A levels, BTECs and apprenticeships," she said. "Whichever they choose, everyone finishes with level 3 qualifications, English and maths, and is qualified to go to university."
Students who start at the UTC aged 14 will go into an apprenticeship at 16 having already had employability skills training and experienced a school ethos that matches the world of work, with an 8.30am-5.30pm day. But Professor Halstead said that those starting at 16 will also benefit from a course structure that weights the bulk of classroom study to the first year of the three-year course. UTCs also have a five-term year with shorter holidays, equivalent to an extra year of study over four years.
The second year of the apprenticeship will see a gradual increase in time spent with the employer and, in the third year, students will spend just one week in eight in the classroom.
Professor Halstead said that the UTC was responding to employer demand for young students to be better prepared before starting work placements and that it aims to mimic the university "sandwich course".
"Sixteen-year-olds need a lot of support and guidance, especially as the first cohort won't have previously attended the UTC. Coming straight out of the educational system, they need employability skills," she said. "In a university model like Aston's, 80 per cent of our students spend a year in industry and we are in the top four for graduate employment. Working with the UTC is bringing this university model down to age 14."
But employers may baulk at the proposed #163;7,500 a year salary for the first year of the apprenticeship - when students will be almost entirely classroom-based - especially as Aston hopes that small and medium-sized businesses will provide a substantial number of the future jobs.
Lord Baker, the driving force behind UTCs, gave apprenticeships his backing. "Developing a strong apprenticeship model is crucial to the continued success of the UTC movement and their unique curriculum that is responsive to the needs of employers," he said.
However, the impact of the apprenticeships will be limited at first: Aston will take on just 15 apprentices in September, increasing to a third of its intake, or about 180 students.
Apprentices will spend 40 weeks in the classroom in their first year. By their third and final year, seven out of eight weeks will be spent in employment.
They will earn a salary of #163;7,500 in their first year,
#163;10,500 in their second year and
#163;12,500 in their third year.
15 apprentices will start on the engineering programme in September.