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Promise of real apprenticeship

It is 10 years since a group of engineering employers and trades unions set about designing the first Modern Apprenticeship framework. We were quite clear as to what was required.

Whatever other sectors might choose to do, our aim was to create a programme that would not only be better than those of our international competitors, but offer opportunities for progression that were as good as those available via full-time education. Now, with the publication of the Tomlinson Report, there is a real prospect of that vision becoming reality.

Engineering attracts some of the most able young people who choose to follow the work-based route, rather than remain in full-time education. Those who successfully complete a three to four-year advanced MA deserve at least as much recognition as students with two or three A-levels.

The working group on 14-19 reform has recommended that MAs be fully integrated within the proposed diploma framework. Those of our apprentices with the necessary aptitude and motivation should be able to compete for university places with other similarly qualified learners and this will encourage more youngsters to consider the work-based route.

The sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technology, SEMTA , has long campaigned for changes to the system of education and training that would help raise the status of vocational and occupational programmes and these latest recommendations are a welcome move in the right direction.

Over the next two or three years, sector skills councils will have a major role in reviewing, developing and promoting their MA to meet this challenge and create the right conditions so employers and training providers deliver quality programmes.

The proposal to introduce so-called "specialist diplomas" which would include both subject-based programmes in areas such as Humanities and Science amp; Mathematics and sector-based programmes, to develop the necessary skills and knowledge for employment or further study, is also an imaginative solution.

The distinction between academic, vocational and occupational courses is widely acknowledged as a serious weakness in our present system and the working group's determination to tackle this problem offers the prospect for real and lasting changes.

Most jobs in science, engineering and manufacturing technologies also demand a good standard of mathematical skills, communication and ICT, as well as the ability to solve problems and to work as a team.

Too many youngsters leave school without having developed these vital skills to meet the needs of employment and, once again, the working group's recommendations will, if implemented, help to raise standards and provide a more effective foundation for learning and development.

However, no one should imagine that what Mike Tomlinson has described as the most important change in 50 years is going to be easy. There are deep-rooted cultural attachments that will take time to overcome. There are many technical issues that remain to be addressed. Above all, reforms must not be rushed.

Integrating MAs within the diploma framework is not straightforward and the diversity of apprenticeship programmes will demand flexibility. As things stand, many MAs could form part of a diploma at intermediate or advanced level, while some would meet the full requirements of the qualification. In a few cases, an MA could exceed the diploma requirements, with extra achievements being recorded in transcript.

But one thing is clear. The content of MAs must remain the responsibility of each sector. They must decide what degree of convergence with the diploma framework will be in the best interests of young people and employers. Their decisions will determine how well equipped they are for the future.

For too long, schools have often viewed the work-based route as a third-class choice of last resort, of lower status and offering fewer opportunities for progression. In a short time all that could change.

John Berkeley is a senior fellow at the centre for lifelong learning, University of Warwick, and a member of the working group on 14 to 19 reform.

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