Apprentices at the Cowley car plant are examples of a surprising fact - that Britain is ahead of Germany in the training league. Ian Nash reports
BRITAIN has surpassed Germany for the first time in the range of high-quality apprenticeships it can offer the young school-leaver.
German industrialists and engineers with BMW look enviously at the competence-based courses developed through national vocational qualifications over the past 10 years or more.
Data on courses compiled by the Government says it all: 500 NVQs at level 3 and 4 (equivalent to A-level or degree) are now available. German apprentices are offered a similar depth of training in 380 trades and professions - with nowhere near the same vocational or educational breadth.
But there is a heavy price. It costs pound;50,000 to put a modern apprentice through the four to five-year programme with Rover at Cowley in Oxford. Wages are also twice as high at Rover as at BMW, which recently took over the British car manufacturer.
At Rover, an apprentice's pay starts at pound;7,135 and rises to pound;13,078. The equivalent range in BMW is pound;4,904 to pound;5,872 and the German managers do not intend to close the gap.
Benefits for the good apprentices are considerable. The best of them gain a Rover Partnership engineering degree, awarded by Warwick University, in the same time as it takes their classmates who remain in full-time education to graduate.
What is more, says John Berkeley, Rover's senior fellow at the university:
"When they graduate, they hit the ground running compared with other graduates who will have had little or no work training."
Malcolm Wicks, lifelong learning minister, was clearly impressed with the articulate apprentices he met on a tour of the site to coincide with the launch in the House of Lords of the Learning and Skills Bill.
It was the pursuit of common standards that mattered, he agreed, not the system by which one reached it. "One of the great problems with Britain is that those who do not follow the academic route too often end up in jobs with no training or where it is of low quality."
He wants "considerably more" modern apprentices and has committed the Department for Education and Employment to increase numbers by 80,000 to 380,000 in the next year.
There are, however, several problems - the biggest being the negative attitude of potential apprentices, the result of too much poor quality work-experience in schools and the constant denigration of schemes such as apprenticeships.
Mr Wicks acknowledged the first problem: "Work-experience is a bit haphazard and we have really got to improve that."
All the Cowley apprentices agreed - relating their own miserable stories. Jon Simms, a final-year engineering apprentice, said at his school the pupils had to arrange their own work-experience. "Two did work with the school caretaker because they had nowhere to go."
John Berkeley offered equally alarming evidence of the second problem: "I do a survey of recruitment every year and two-thirds of young people who joined us last year were strongly advised by schools to stay on for A-levels. We needmore collaboration."
And that will be a priority of the new learning and skills councils, Mr Wicks insists. "We need more of a mix and overlap of training and qualifications.
"The creation of local skills councils and the national council will not be just a rebadging of the old regime. It will be a new animal, bringing new possibilities into the funding system."
But, whether greater regulation of the supply side can really increase demand for alternative routes through education and training has yet to be seen.
Part of the problem, as Rover executives and apprentices agree, that the vocational route is always viewed as a third-rate option for those who cannot make it through A-levels. When Jon Simms chose the apprenticeship, his teachers made it clear that he was going for "a poorer route".
Employers are also reluctant to give training. Richard Winspear, a trained toolmaker and quality control inspector with Rover, said: "I tried for three years to get training in jobs, before joining Rover, but none of the managers would let me train."
If Britain is winning the quality and competence race, it has a long way to go in the numbers game. Almost 800 of Rover's 28,000 workforce are trainees, including 68 modern apprentices. The sister BMW plant has 3,300 trainees in 70,000 most of whom will be trained to a greater depth, if not breadth, in their subjects than their British counterparts.
A study last autumn by John Brennan, development director for the Association of Colleges, suggested that nationally only 30 per cent of apprentices were coming through with a qualification and that many apprenticeships in service industries such as hairdressing did not lead to higher-level qualifications.
The DFEE disputes the data but accepts that more must be done if modern apprentices are to get into higher education, attaining the "mix and overlap" Malcolm Wicks urgently seeks.
Rover's senior fellow, John Berkeley challenged Malcolm Wicks on cost: "In the German system 65 per cent of the apprentice's vocational training is free to the employer. It is anything but free here."
The apprentices were in no doubt of the value of the scheme. None of them would have chosen the full-time college or university option. They did not need to as the Rover scheme is in partnership with Warwick University and FE colleges such as Abingdon and Oxford - just what the minister ordered.
Most apprentices acquire a wide array of qualifications. Helen Janes, a business technician, has NVQs at levels 2 and 3 in administration, a national certificate in business and finance, the first stage of her training for the Chartered Institute of Management Accounts and Open College Network awards in German language and culture, equipping her to work at BMW in Munich.
But Mr Wicks knows that the Rover model is a flagship that few will be able to copy.
The real test will be whether the University for Industry and colleges in the new partnerships his government envisages can deliver affordable, quality training. Small businesses, who employ most of the workforce, cannot afford Rover levels of cash.