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'We must stop doing apprenticeships on the cheap'

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, writes:

National Apprenticeship Week is a time to commend the achievements of apprentices and politicians have led the way with warm words about the work that apprentices do.

One theme already this week has been the need to ensure that vocational education is seen as equal to, rather than second fiddle to, academic qualifications.

The University and College Union (UCU) agrees wholeheartedly with that, but we believe that real equality between the two paths will only come if we stop trying to do apprenticeships on the cheap.

Therefore, while we welcome any moves to increase the publicity and uptake of apprenticeships, we believe that this week is a time to consider radical proposals that would really bridge the divide between vocational and academic education.

This is the divide, of course, that Michael Gove said yesterday has “helped to generate – and perpetuate –class divisions. It has, in societies like our own, encouraged people to think in terms of intellectual castes – thinkers or makers, artists or designers – those happiest in the realm of the conceptual and those who prefer the hard and practical.”

Under our proposals, apprentices will receive a more rounded education and be fairly remunerated for their work.

We believe that this is the only basis for a real skills revolution.

Apprenticeship education must not just be about learning the skills and theory necessary in a chosen field, but also cover employability skills, citizenship education, rights and responsibilities at work.

It is colleges, currently minority players in the delivery of apprenticeships, who are best equipped to provide the high-quality general education that should be at the core of all vocational delivery.

Apprenticeships in England are unusual in that they only last for a minimum of 12 months, and the government only introduced this minimum following scandals involving some courses that lasted significantly less.

UCU believes that, in order to provide a holistic education (to include work-based employment and off-site learning), apprenticeships should last a minimum of three years, with a certified professional title awarded upon completion.

The scandalous pay rates of some apprenticeships must be looked at, too.

While we accept that wages are often lower because they are in training, it should be a touchstone of the system that those who choose to better themselves through apprenticeships receive rates of pay that encourage this.

The current minimum apprentice rate is £2.69 an hour, which is on a par with rates for a paper round and is a sum I defy any reader of this blog to live on.

Our proposals for decently remunerated three-year programmes would mean facing up to the fact that high-quality vocational education cannot be done on the cheap.

That is the lesson from Europe and also from the best apprenticeships in the UK – it is about investment in all our young people, not just a lucky few.

So, while we celebrate the wonderful achievements of our apprentices this week, we must also be prepared to think about how we can properly support them.


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