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In the winking of an eye

Modern apprenticeships offer a new parity between academic and work-based studies. But it will take time before vocational qualifications are perceived as anything other than second best, writes Phil Revell

Next to the Winking Eye bridge on the south bank of the Tyne is the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts, a pound;40 million lottery project that will be Newcastle's cultural focus when it is complete in 2002.

Inside the centre, 17-year-old Phillip Hatch has been fitting the metal bus bars that will carry the building's power supply. He's a modern apprentice - a trainee electrician - and the job is a far cry from what he imagined when he was in the classroom. "I'd done electronics at school," he said, "I thought it would be like that - it's not."

Modern apprenticeships account for nearly half the young people in training and have just been revamped. The lower level National Traineeship Scheme has been re-labelled as a Foundation Modern Apprenticeship. The MA is now described as an Advanced Modern Apprenticeship, to stress the link with vocational A-levels.

Phillip works with 18-year-old Paul Menton. They're both in the second year of a four-year apprenticeship with Balfour Kilpatrick, a big electrical engineering contractor and part of the Balfour-Beatty group. Both lads have good GCSEs that could have got them into sixth form or college. They are just the kind of people that employers want to see taking the vocational route. But they are the exceptions.

The 20-odd per cent of those who leave school at 16 do not usually have good GCSEs, while the ones who do usually stay on in full-time education.

"The better people are filtered out," says Phil McGuire, Balfour Kilpatrick's area manager. "So there's a real problem with the quality of the young people in work-based training."

The problems were highlighted last year in a report by the Skills Taskforce. "Engineering has clearly not been getting it's share of the student population," the report said.

Electrical engineering has its difficulties, but things are worse in gas and plumbing, where there is a deep-seated training crisis.

Gas industry training used to be the preserve of British Gas. "They used to support the colleges with materials, tools and seconded engineers," says John Hazlehurst, project manager for Ginto, the industry's training organisation. But since privatisation British Gas has given up the role, with the result that only 13 FE colleges now offer the training for a gas modern apprenticeship. Ten years ago there were 100.

The industry is dominated by small contractors. Of 97,000 Corgi-registered (qualified) operatives, a quarter are more than 50 years old, and just 140 are under 20. Ginto estimates that there will be 30,000 fewer by 2004. It reported to the Government that "major shortages seem likely".

Plumbing is also dominated by one-man businesses and is causing similar concern. These businesses are the most difficult to engage in training, and provision for apprentices is often poor.

"If you put pressure on these small employers, they simply pull out of the schemes," said one FE lecturer. But Ginto remains confident that, with the right support, the skills shortages can be addressed.

"We're lobbying the Learning and Skills Council," says Mr Hazlehurst. "TEC funding for these courses has been insufficient. We're looking at private training bodies as we see them as more focused and more efficient. We have to attack the problem with school-leavers at one end and with adult recruits in the middle." Certainly, work-related training is fraught with inequalities between the academic and voctional routes in the post-16 sector. Dave Rogers, a director of JTL, the electrical industry training provider, says: "The modern apprenticeship is better for most young people than full-time further education. They're employed from day one. It's real work experience and they're still getting college training."

JTL has more than 7,000 apprentices in training, including Phillip Hatch and Paul Menton. In the past year 11,000 young people showed interest in the scheme, but only 2,500 passed the selection process. JTL has contracts with more than 100 FE colleges to deliver off-site training, most on block-release.

"The model we would aspire to is the one where we could afford to pay the full cost of training," says Mr Rogers. "But we anticipate better funding from LSCs."

The Association of Learning Providers is now in talks with the LSC and the Department for Education and Employment on these issues. JTL would like to see one national contract. At present, they have 72 contracts with local learning and skills councils.

JTL also hopes priorities will change, and the indications are that manufacturing and engineering providers will see enhanced rates paid by LSCs. The losers are likely to be retail, hospitality, catering and business administration.

But a more level playing field won't alter the perceptions that are the real obstacle in the work-based route. Teachers and parents see the modern apprenticeship as insecure, especially with small employers.

Last year's report by the Training Standards Council found that equal opportunities, assessment and training were all poor. At the very least, LSCs should be be able to address the funding issues outlined in the report. It found that training councils could pay providers anything from pound;3,390 to pound;10,000 for apprentices on the same programme.

On Tyneside, the Balfour Kilpatrick site manager is keen to demonstrate the high quality of support available to Phillip Hatch and Paul Menton. "We obviously have to take great care of those lads in terms of the work we give them to do," he says. "There are special risk assessments done for the under-18s, and their hours are different."

JTL provides close support via an area supervisor - John Longley visits apprentices every three months. If an employer has to let an apprentice go, Mr Longley can also use his contacts to find another employer. "We support the employer and the apprentice," he says. "Smaller employers haven't the time to sort out college training, and they may need advice on the kind of work-based training the apprentices ought to be doing."

Mr Longley is a time-served electrician with a background in training. He believes that umbrella organisations such as JTL offer the best support for young people entering the work-based route. But not all work-based training matches that provided by JTL.

"The role the Adult Learning Inspectorate plays will be critical in driving up quality," says Dave Rogers. He's confident that work-based training could become as attractive an option as FE if the quality can be sufficiently raised.

Paul Menton has no regrets about going into work at age 16.

"The first year was a bit of a drag because there wasn't much learning and there was a lot of watching. In the second year there's been more responsibility and I've really enjoyed it."

His workmate, Phillip Hatch, is equally enthused by the prospect of a "a proper job". And the money? Is that a factor? "It's got to be," says Phillip. "We earn about pound;150 a week - that allows you to do things and go places. The money's important - you don't want to rely on your parents."

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