We need better support for people to be ready for an apprenticeship if we are to widen access. Learning from other countries can help.
Each month the apprenticeship statistics reveal a new up or down giving us an insight into how apprenticeship reforms, including the levy, have bedded down.
But underpinning these twists and turns, we know that to benefit people and employers apprenticeships must be of high quality and accessible to everyone that would benefit from them.
Previous Learning and Work Institute research has shown significant disparities in apprenticeship take-up between different demographic groups and geographic areas.
For example, gender segregation means women are under-represented in sectors such as engineering and our Youth Opportunity Index showed how access to apprenticeships varies across England’s local authorities.
Too often, we think of this as a problem specific to us and try and invent something brand new to tackle it. Now a new project has looked at examples from across Europe of how best to prepare young people to be ready to start an apprenticeship – essential to widening access to apprenticeships and to maximising completion rates.
I was lucky enough to visit one of these examples, Joblinge in Frankfurt, last year. Established by employers, it gives out-of-work young people an intensive experience, all focused on preparing for an apprenticeship.
It includes job-related skills and basic language and maths skills, as well as a mentor from a local employer. The young people I spoke to said they particularly valued the intensive nature of the project and its link to real jobs and apprenticeships – the buy-in of employers was crucial and palpable.
We also identified examples from Ireland, where Technological University Dublin involves partners and employers in designing pre-apprenticeship programmes and offering work experience; Spain, where Tomillo Foundation focus on developing an underpinning of basic, vocational and social skills means high progression rates to intermediate apprenticeships; and France, where a network of Second Chance Schools is developing a strengthening track record supporting 16- to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training.
What this showed is that, while each country’s context is different, there are some common challenges, particularly around making the education to work transition work for all young people and bringing together the employment and education systems.
There were some common themes in responding to these challenges too, including the need for coordinated employer engagement, flexible programmes that inspire young people and include real work experience, and combining a foundation of basic skills with job-specific learning.
We have now launched a set of resources, including short films, top tips and case studies, that we hope will be useful. There are likely to be direct lessons for traineeship provision, but I think there are wider implications too for the new T levels, the employment system, and other employability provision.
Of course, the projects we engaged represent just a small sample of the excellent practice in this country and across the world. There are two key lessons for me. The first is the need to focus relentlessly on widening and improving access to apprenticeships.
This is as important as the quality and content of the apprenticeship itself. A ladder of opportunity is no good if the first few rungs are missing and so out of reach to many young people.
You can't copy and paste from abroad
The second lesson is the need to share experience and best practice. That means within countries and across the UK, but also internationally too. You can never simply copy and paste systems from one country to another.
But you can share frontline and policymaking experience. Of course, there are many examples of doing this, including the Association of Colleges’ four nations approach and Learning and Work’s work with others in bringing together of adult learning providers in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland.
However, my sense overall is that we do too little of this and we need to find ways to do more.
We mustn’t lose sight of the first rungs on the ladder and we must widen our horizons to find new ways to deliver better learning.
Stephen Evans is the chief executive of Learning and Work Institute