Ofsted’s hard hitting report on the quality of apprenticeship provision, confirms what is increasingly becoming apparent. Large numbers of apprenticeships are poor quality, involve little real training and merely certify ‘existing low-level skills, such as making coffee, serving sandwiches or cleaning floors’ (Ofsted p 4**). Ofsted reports low rates of progression from these low-level schemes many of which, it argues, add little value to either the individual or the employer.
In particular Ofsted identifies a shortage of apprenticeships for school and college leavers. This is confirmed in the latest government data which shows only 1 in 4 new starts by those under 19. It calls for schools to do more to promote apprenticeships, says that careers advice is ‘not sufficiently detailed’ (Ofsted p 5) and that too few pupils experience high-quality work experience during their time at school.
There are some good apprenticeships however. Ofsted identifies engineering, motor vehicles and the construction sector in particular, but though these can lead to higher salaries and promotion it argues there are nowhere near enough. Ofsted sees recent changes being made to apprenticeships, moving in the right direction. New Trailblazer apprenticeships, directly designed by employers, include more off-the-job, training for example, but it argues, apprenticeships as they are presently administered are not delivering the skills needed to promote economic growth and are wasting public funds.
Ofsted, particularly its chief Michael Wilshaw, is not usually right on very much, so in one sense this report should be welcomed. Ofsted though, has a rather shallow explanation for the failure of apprenticeships. There are major problems with design and implementation, but a key reason why there are so many apprenticeships in retail, social care, leisure and in customer services, is because the economic ‘recovery’ has been based on the growth of low paid, low skilled work in these areas. (The UK is becoming the coffee shop capital of Europe!) Engineering and manufacturing now employ less than 1 in 10 of the workforce and only about a quarter of new jobs created could be described as ‘professional or managerial’.
We should continue to support all initiatives seeking to improve apprenticeship, but if employment opportunities for young people are to be seriously improved, an alternative policy for the economy is also required. In other words the apprenticeship problem is a jobs problem, as much as it is one of training and skills. Critics of apprenticeships often look to the German system for inspiration. German apprenticeships provide a ‘licence to practice’ an occupation, are to a much higher standard and require attendance at college, but there, employers, trade unions and government are involved in much greater cooperation over apprenticeship provision, economic planning and labour market needs.
Meanwhile, schools will not be persuaded to promote apprenticeships as alternatives to higher education, while they are clearly not.