Painting over cracks is not enough for apprentices

16th December 2011 at 00:00
England's 'dysfunctional' system needs an overhaul, research says

In countries where apprenticeships are far more popular with employers than in England, participants are expected to carry out nine times the amount of training: a minimum of 900 hours compared to just 100 in this country.

That is one of the headline figures of a new policy analysis that lays bare the "dysfunctional funding and delivery model" of apprenticeships in England.

Written by Hilary Steedman, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, it returns to the original announcement of modern apprenticeships in 1993 and notes that the then Conservative government's pledge of 40,000 level 3 apprenticeship qualifications each year has not been met in 18 years. Despite their focus on apprentices, "the coalition Government has made no fundamental changes to the dysfunctional apprenticeship delivery model that it inherited," Dr Steedman writes.

The Conservatives' aim for apprenticeships to promote higher skill levels has been sacrificed to the desire to increase the numbers employed, encouraging the growth of lower-level apprentices under Labour and leading to the proportion of over-25 apprentices roughly doubling in one year under the Coalition. One source of the problem has been apprentices' status as employees in England, according to Dr Steedman. In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, where more than a quarter of employers use apprentices - compared to just 8 per cent in England - apprentices have a separate legal status as trainees. They receive an allowance that can be as little as a tenth of the average #163;170 a week paid in England.

Dr Steedman argues that the relatively high wage paid by English employers means they expect greater productivity and are reluctant to release apprentices for much training. "Employee status is rather a large undertaking for businesses to take on. They offer quite a high wage, but then they can't afford to train the apprentices," she said.

Dr Steedman also suggested money was being wasted sending training providers around the country to assess young people and said employers should train and assess their own apprentices.

Among the aspects of the apprenticeship training that the Coalition has not changed is the divided responsibility for them, split between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Dr Steedman argues that BIS's influence over apprenticeships, along with the DfE's repeal of legislation guaranteeing an apprenticeship for all eligible young people, means that the policy has shifted from enabling young people to gain skills and jobs to raising the skills of the workforce regardless of age.

She added that BIS's support for expanding the retail apprenticeships, with their "notoriously low" standards, has undermined its stated commitment to quality.

To boost the number of high-skill apprenticeships, the policy analysis proposes extending direct funding of apprenticeships to medium-sized employers and introducing industry levies to fund sector skills bodies and increase employer commitment - as happens in construction. Funding should be targeted on under-25s to free up cash for more level 3 qualifications, while the entitlement for 16 to 19-year-olds should be reintroduced, again at level 3.

The best of England's apprenticeships could compare with any in the world, Dr Steedman said, the country just needs more of them. "Unfortunately, more young people apply for each of these apprentice places than for a place at an Oxbridge college," she said.

A BIS spokesman said: "Every apprenticeship is a real job, designed to meet the skills needs of employers; it is right that apprentices are paid a fair wage and afforded employee status.

"Recent data shows strong growth in apprenticeship starts across all age ranges, and the Government's joint apprenticeships unit is working across departments so all young people can get the high quality training they need to get work and get on at work."

AROUND THE WORLD

Apprenticeships - England 2011

- Employed status

- Wage (high relative to other countries)

- Short duration (average one year)

- Most at lower skill level (level 2)

- Outside providers give training

- Only 60 per cent of apprentices are under 25

- Minimum 100 hours off-the-job training

- 4-8 per cent of employers train apprentices

Apprenticeships - Austria, Germany, Switzerland 2011

- Trainee status

- Trainee allowance

- Long duration (average three years)

- Most at higher skill level (level 3)

- Employers train on the job

- Apprentices are normally under 25

- Minimum 900 hours off-the-job training

- 25-30 per cent of employers train apprentices

Source: Apprenticeship Policy in England: increasing skills versus boosting young people's job prospects, Dr Hilary Steedman, 2011.

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