Coherence is the key
Apprenticeships today are a bit like exams - those who took them 30 years ago believe they must be easier. How else could there be so many passes?
Let me be clear on my position here. I struggle to understand some of my children's exam questions - even in subjects I studied myself. Similarly, I fail to recognise nostalgia for the old apprenticeships.
In the days when engineering firms, shipyards and collieries employed thousands of people on one site with jobs for life, the old apprenticeship was a good model. But as the steel industry has witnessed recently, if you lose those jobs the skills are not easily transferable.
We now live in a new kind of industrial era. Technology will continue to change rapidly - and careers will change, too.
Today's large employers are distributors, supermarkets and food companies.
So, how an apprenticeship in logistics would compare to one in engineering I fail to see. But what I can recognise is a whole army of qualifications professionals rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of yet more vocational qualifications. Here, it is worth reflecting that if every hairdressing apprentice of the past 20 years had continued in that vocation, we would have become a nation of crimpers.
We should see the advent of clear vocational paths for 14-year-olds as a positive outcome - and not as a containment policy for unruly pupils.
A key weakness in 14-19 education is the apparent desperation to broaden the available options. Yet good linguists, for example, need to deepen their linguistic skills and knowledge, not cobble together a hotchpotch of languages.
The vogue for broadening choices rather than extending skills seems to allow a drift into GCSEs and further and higher education - when for many a more coherent set of skills would be a lot more transferable and much more motivating.
In the past, I have employed technicians myself. I saw an aptitude for electronics as essential. A skills set based on work-based training but underpinned by qualifications is a much more attractive combination than three very average AS levels in science.
Employers in my area are keen to spot talent early. And providing a risk-free period of semi-apprenticeship suits both employer and individual.
For hard-to-employ groups, a similar idea is creating an intermediate labour market in Bassetlaw for former drug addicts - again providing an agency-style return to work, but with skills training as a central principle. This initiative is being led by Reed Employment, Remploy and others.
These young people are learning to develop evidence of work history, reliability and honesty - all essential qualities for prospective employers.
This model helps to create a stronger possibility of success than the Progress to Work scheme. Too many attempts to get difficult groups back to work are failing on account of the inability or unwillingness of employers to create placements, which must then be remodelled into an agency-style provision of work experience.
The new trade union Community aims to set up its own employment agency to achieve precisely that, using its not-for-profit status as one guarantee of quality. But good skills training must also be built into its programme to provide a second kite mark of quality.
This Government's greatest achievement has been to increase standards in early-years and primary education. Its highest priority now is to embed higher standards in secondary education - and the signs are encouraging.
Its third great challenge must be to strengthen the links between vocational training and the world of work.