Skills can stop apprenticeships foundering

IN my annual report for 2001-2 published last week, I highlighted a serious level of underachievement in work-based learning. My inspectors found that only one in three modern apprentices completed their framework, with key skills the biggest single cause of young people's failure. Delivery of key skills was cited as a weakness in nearly half the providers inspected in 2001-2 and was a strength in only 6 per cent of them. It was a weakness in more than 90 per cent of the poorest providers. From the size of the gap in achievement between national vocational qualifications and apprenticeships, we can gauge the disincentive which key skills, and probably the key-skills tests, exert on success rates. It is certainly the most significant we can measure, at between 10 and 20 per cent.

The central idea of key skills, that knowledge is best acquired in a practical context, particularly among those who have rejected academic study, is a sound one. And yet key skills are currently a barrier, not a pathway to success, for too many young people.

Many young people, who have neither done well at school nor enjoyed it, find their way into work-based learning. They have poor qualifications and, often, they are believed to have poor basic skills. Many trainers continue to profess their confusion about basic and key skills and few are trained in teaching young people to remedy them. Inspectors found many examples where young people were hampered in achieving an apprenticeship because they had had no accurately directed help in dealing with an inability to read, write or handle numbers fluently.

Providers' lack of confidence in their ability to deliver key skills training, as well as many learners' and employers' lack of commitment to them, combine to make the key skills element of modern apprenticeships a low priority for many. External testing of key skills has been consistently resisted by providers and learners, a response that was to be expected given that opting into work-based learning is, for many, also opting out of exams.

What can we do? We can take a long, hard look at the overlap between basic skills, in which the Government is investing so heavily, and the core key skills at levels 1 and 2 where, for young people, most of the problems lie. Most employers do not see the teaching of literacy, numeracy and basic information technology as their business; young employees should arrive with the basics. Can we ensure that they do so through an enhanced, specifically funded "gateway to work", outside the apprenticeship frameworks? Can we ensure that key skills at levels 3 and 4, when they are genuinely vocationally specific, are built into technical certificates? Can we ensure that the wider key skills figure more prominently in apprenticeships approved by the new sector skills councils?

In my final report for the Training Standards Council, I remarked that the conception and delivery of key skills needed to be reconsidered. Key skills training at work is both failing in its own right and is distorting perceptions of the successes and failures of work-based learning for young people as a whole. National policy around key skills and, up to level 2, their relationship with the important initiatives in basic skills, should be reviewed without precondition.

We must not make apprenticeships a soft option, or betray the young people who see an apprenticeship as preparation for a career, not just a job, but we do need to be realistic in tackling things which do not work. This country needs more vocational training and better work-based learning. We must not allow an apprenticeship system similar to those which work well in other countries to founder.

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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