At first glance, the apprenticeship starts figures from the most recent reports look encouraging. But, as always, looks can be deceiving.
What is of most concern is the configuration of the starts and the direction in which the funding is travelling.
Kathleen Henehan’s excellent, balanced article contains clear indications that if the intention of apprenticeships was to give young people a foothold on a professional ladder, then the government programme is losing its way.
It raises, intentionally or unintentionally, the question of whether it is legitimate to use money from the apprenticeship levy to fund management training.
Job prospects for the young
Does the economy need yet more managers? When I wanted to broaden my understanding of management theory and practice, with a view to changing career, I funded myself through a year’s course in personnel management.
The considerable salary sacrifice has never really paid for itself – if the aim was to move out of teaching and into personnel management (or HR) – because I came back to teaching a couple of years later.
Nor has the professional education ensured promotion within teaching. But the experience has been invaluable in informing the management functions which are part and parcel of my job. And the wider perspective I gained daily informs my understanding of the world of work and education… I digress.
Suffice to say, it hardly seems fair that higher-level (MBA) managerial training should absorb the financial resources intended for basic apprenticeships which would lead to improved job prospects for the young.
The white-collar vs blue-collar divide
Managers may be important, but they are no use without skilled workers. Diverting the apprenticeship levy away from skill development is reinforcing the class and white-collar vs blue-collar divide.
It leaves us trailing even further behind enlightened countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Our economy needs the resource of skilled workers to make the goods and deliver services.
In terms of social justice, it is deeply unfair to divert funding away from securing the life chances of the 16- to 24-year-olds who are not in other education.
That is not to say that apprenticeships are job-creation schemes designed to keep young people usefully occupied. Nor are these potential apprentices to be sources of cheap labour.
Teaching apprenticeships 'can be excellent'
At the moment we are squandering a vital human resource and failing to provide a meaningful and rewarding experience to combat the disadvantage that is too deeply entrenched. Work, a new role and the experience of earning money can transform behaviour and expectation.
Those of us with memories of the 1980s' slump will remember the UB40 song One in Ten, referring to unemployment statistics then. If we can learn anything from history then this has to be it. We need to be far more aspirational than job-creation schemes and artificial set-ups. Apprenticeship schemes have to be seen to provide real benefits.
Excellent schemes exist in all sectors, from the Globe Theatre – proudly displaying its award alongside the more usual drama-related stuff – to small hi-tech companies, such as Hovertravel, where apprenticeships build from the bottom up.
Teaching apprenticeships can be excellent ways of giving talented vocational young people a way into a fulfilling career in the classroom, building from a teaching assistant up.
From apprentice to mentor
But the picture across the apprenticeship sector has to be more concerted and there has to be evidence that once beyond successful qualification, young people are valued by companies and can capitalise on their training to be mentors themselves at a later stage, once they are master-craftsmen.
The Meister qualification, so valued in Germany, needs to exist in all types of employment here in the UK. Kathleen Henehan’s strongly-worded conclusions are a vital reminder of the work that needs to be done.
We have done too much consolidation of opportunity in the higher education and managerial domains – we are still too content with leaving the career starts of skilled people as a frustratingly piecemeal picture.
We need to imagine more concretely what needs to be done and how. We need now to build from the bottom up.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the South of England