Let's build the golden age of apprenticeship

12th February 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Tom Wilson

There was a time when even sorcerers had apprentices, who learned how to mix spells and studied the art of alchemy at the feet of their master.

But as manufacturing declined through recessions in the 1970s and 1980s, the magic seemed to have been lost in this time-honoured method of training and teaching the nation's craftsmen, builders and engineers.

In the mid-1960s there were about 240,000 apprentices; by 1990 there were 53,000. This decline had been hastened by lack of government funding, the loss of a sense of duty for training by employers and the increase in post-16 participation in full-time education.

But the scene has changed dramatically. Last week's Apprenticeship Week celebrated the highest ever level of people starting apprenticeships (239,900 in 200809) and a completion rate of 70 per cent. The Government's white paper Skills for Growth wants three-quarters of people to have participated in higher education or completed an advanced apprenticeship by the time they are 30.

There is a target of 35,000 advanced apprenticeships over the next two years, scholarships for apprenticeships and a proposal for the qualification to attract Ucas points, making a clear route from vocational education to degree level and beyond. The Conservatives have pledged to increase apprentice numbers and the Liberal Democrats are also supporting them.

The range of subjects is vast: you can learn to construct dry-stone walls, sell second-hand cars, write computer games or decommission a nuclear power station. You can learn to run a nail bar or become a football coach, and apprenticeships still offer solid grounding in the traditional building and engineering industries.

For young people, the choice is clear: why saddle yourself with debt and take your chances on a precarious graduate jobs market when you can earn as you learn and be taught by experts in the field?

Rachel Hoyle appalled her mother and teachers by leaving school at 16. After a work experience trip in Year 10 to BAE Systems, she decided on an engineering apprenticeship. Now 23, she is on the Eurofighter Typhoon jet team and en route to a mechanical engineering degree paid for by her employers. Her friends are leaving university and struggling to find work.

The new initiatives still need to prove themselves: the recent history of work-based training is littered with such discredited schemes as the Youth Opportunities Programme, Youth Training Scheme and the Modern Apprenticeships of the 1990s.

Today, the sector skills councils play a vital role in maintaining the quality of the courses. If they do not remain as robust qualifications with structured learning, they too will fall by the wayside. Politicians will use them at their peril as a quick fix to the UK's Neet (not in education, employment or training) problem.

Unions are suspicious that the apprenticeships will be used as cheap alternatives to "real" jobs. The TUC, alert to the dangers, is campaigning to make sure that the pay is in line with national minimum wage rates, and unionlearn provides courses in apprentice awareness and mentoring apprentices for its reps.

It is up to politicians, employers, unions and educators - not alchemists - to ensure that these apprenticeships will be the golden age of vocational qualifications.

Tom Wilson, Director of unionlearn, the TUC's learning and training organisation.

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