In the UK we have a history of placing a higher value on the academic pathway from school to A-levels to university. But one size does not fit all and so it’s vital that we develop high-quality vocational pathways that get the same respect other educational choices receive.
Quality training is something employers are crying out for. Businesses are overwhelmingly positive about apprenticeships and recognise that work-based training can help boost skills and productivity, as well as the career prospects of young people. So, the government is right to turn the spotlight on apprenticeships, but wrong in focusing on counting numbers rather than the quality of apprenticeships.
The target to deliver 3 million apprenticeships in the next five years risks undermining the efforts that have gone in to increase the profile of apprenticeships. The focus on hitting this arbitrary figure could lead to a conveyor belt model, where apprenticeships are churned out and quality suffers. This in turn would result in apprenticeships continuing to be seen as an inferior alternative to university.
Businesses are concerned about the government’s proposal for funding this increase through an apprenticeship levy. This is a blunt instrument; it’s effectively a payroll tax on large firms to help the government reach its apprenticeship target in these financially constrained times. Ultimately, the best way to encourage firms to take on apprentices is to increase their quality and relevance to business. If the quality is there the demand, from both employers and potential apprentices, will naturally follow.
Apprenticeship policy is also currently too focused on the large employers, many of whom are already heavily involved in this type of training. Our research shows that it is actually the smaller businesses that are most likely to be thinking of taking on apprentices for the first time. Real growth can come from supporting small- and medium-sized businesses, with a funding model which recognises the greater costs they face, as a result of having less staff capacity and resources, when offering apprenticeships and training.
Chambers of commerce across the UK are vocal champions of apprenticeships. Chambers deliver support events for hundreds of small- and medium-sized businesses who want to find out how to take on their first apprentice.
Over the next year, we will put on 250 "Your Future" career events, reaching 70,000 pupils who will get the chance to interact with local businesses and find out about different career pathways, including apprenticeships.
But to truly increase take up among businesses, it is the government that has to ensure that when it comes to apprenticeships, the focus is on quality over quantity. Only then can we forge a credible alternative to the academic pathway which businesses and young people can fully buy into.