Focusing on craftsmanship can make every apprenticeship count

3rd June 2016 at 00:00
Training opportunities must be seen as a passport to success, not a means of securing cheap labour

Hands up anyone who remembers what the Education and Training Foundation was originally going to be called when the idea was first mooted by then skills minister John Hayes? The FE Guild.

The charmingly antiquated terminology conjures up images of work-based training from days of yore – of eager, young apprentices being nurtured by kindly old masters. It scarcely seems believable in the era of productivity plans, area reviews and apprenticeship levies that, just four short years ago, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published a document called Developing a Guild for Further Education.

Given the difference in style between Mr Hayes and his ambitious successor, Matt Hancock (who, despite moving on to bigger and better things as a member of the Cabinet, seems to enjoy dabbling in his old FE domain), it was little wonder that a more up-to-date moniker was chosen.

Old-fashioned ideas

But as far as the general public is concerned, the idea of the apprentice and the master endures. The term apprenticeship goes back to medieval craft guilds. During the 19th century, apprenticeships spread from traditional trades, such as construction, printing and paper-making, to emerging fields, such as engineering and shipbuilding. Today, the sectors with the biggest numbers of apprentices are business, administration and law.

But with the current focus on employability and the need for an apprentice to become a paid-up contributor to UK plc, one concept that seems to have dropped out of favour is that of craftsmanship.

As Kirstie Donnelly, managing director of City & Guilds, points out in her foreword to the organisation’s new report on craftsmanship, in a world where jobs are often computer- or office-based, many would question the relevance of the idea of craft.

But as Professor Bill Lucas and Dr Ellen Spencer, from the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester, go on to argue in the report, the notion of being a master of a craft still has resonance – and relevance.

The researchers focus on the concept of a "craftsmanlike attitude". They have interviewed tutors and employers from a number of industries to demonstrate that a business administrator has as much right to regard themselves as a craftsman as a jewellery maker does. The idea that craftsmanship is teachable is also important – particularly for the FE sector, with its close links to industry and expertise in preparing learners for the different demands of the workplace.

Avoiding a bums-on-seats approach

While the government’s target of creating 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 has rightly brought increased awareness of and interest in the sector, the risk is that the emphasis on this goal will lead to apprenticeships becoming little more than low-paid jobs for low-skilled employees.

The understanding that an apprenticeship is an aspirational opportunity and a passport to success, rather than simply an excuse for cheap labour, is essential. But with changes to public sector employment rules and a levy on employers in the private sector already in the offing to help the government to reach its target (one which, let’s be frank, until the night of the 2015 general election it never really expected it would have to meet), preventing a bums-on-seats approach will prove almost impossible.

But focusing on the craft of a job is something worth clinging to. As the City & Guilds report states: "Craftsmanship goes beyond technical proficiency. It denotes a certain attitude towards work. Novices can – and should – be trained to think and perform with ‘craftsmanlike’ dispositions." That truly is a vision of apprenticeships worth getting behind.

This is an article from the 3 June edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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