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New horizons for apprentices

David Blunkett has made a great start with his rebranding, but it is still only a start, says John Berkeley

THOSE OF US who care about work-based training will have been heartened by the Secretary of State's recent speech to the Further Education Funding Council conference.

Condemning those who belittle vocational training, David BLunkett promised a new coherence and a clearer path from secondary to higher education.

Instead of promoting national traineeships and modern apprenticeships as separate programmes, the emphasis will be on progression within a single framework. The schemes will be re-shaped and re-branded as foundation and advanced modern apprenticeships.

He highlighted the need for modern apprentices to be able to progress to higher education and a commitment to ensure that vocational education forms an integral part of apprenticeships in future.

This was a robust vote of confidence for the work-based route, with apprenticeships championed as a key component of post-16 provision.

This is a great start, but we need to complete the framework. There must be higher modern apprenticeships, embracing programmes that incorporate NVQ level 4, Higher National Certificate or degree qualifications, and graduate modern apprenticeships for those starting in higher education.

Improving understanding and introducing off-the-job learning in a college or other provider, will be more challenging.

Few modern apprenticeships specify any requirement for formal vocational education or off-the-job learning, and the reaction of many to the new requirements may depend on whether employers will have to pay the full cost.

For too long, work-based learning has been undervalued, but strengthening apprenticeship programmes will not change public opinion. While the taught and experiential learning options remain separate, our deep-seated attachment to the former is likely to remain.

We need to blur that distinction and promote joint approaches to modern apprenticeships involving schools, colleges and employers. Schools are mre likely to promote a post-16 option if they have a role to play in it.

Also, industry and commerce currently lack the infrastructure for delivering work-based training. A major initiative is needed to develop training if the workplace is to become an effective learning environment, while careers guidance will also be critical.

But perhaps the pre-eminent weakness in work-based training is the absence in most employment of any compelling requirement for it. The staying-on rate has rocketed and the number of 16 and 17-year-olds undertaking training in the workplace has fallen. If there is to be apprenticeship expansion, what will be the driving force behind such a reversal of recent trends?

Perhaps the answer lies in encouraging a "licence to practise" approach, with young people becoming qualified for their chosen work role. We already have a national system of occupational standards covering all fields of employment. Where the momentum for development would come from is unclear but, without motivation, what would drive an expansion in supply and demand?

The Secretary of State used the term "dual system" to describe a future with genuine parity of esteem across the post-16 options. But the coherence he seeks also demands a duality of purpose, a meeting of minds. Change in schools is one thing; driving up standards and expanding work-based training is another.

A new vision for work-based learning will demand a partnership between government, employers, schools, colleges and other training providers. Ministers must decide whether to push for consistency across the new national framework of apprenticeships, or respect the differences between employment sectors and allow diversity.

With government funding for apprenticeships representing as little as 15-20 per cent of training and employment costs in some sectors, major reform will require more than political will to bring about the changes we need.

John Berkeley is project director, Young People Development Policy amp; Programmes for BMW Group's UK operations

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