‘Our goal is for young people to see apprenticeships as a high quality and prestigious path to successful careers’
Foreword to English Apprenticeships: Our 2020 Vision HM Government Dec 2015
Latest statistics for apprenticeship starts continue to provide a rather different picture to that pained by government ministers. It’s true that there have been over 3 million starts since May 2010 and another 800 000 since 2015, but the majority of these have continued to be at Intermediate (GCSE) Level a standard most young people have already reached. Adult workers (often existing staff being reclassified as apprentices to secure training funding) have also benefited the most.
Figures for the period September to November 2016, show a similar story. There were 155,600 new starts, but of these 84,000 were Intermediate Level -and just 58,300 Apprentices were aged under 19.
Apprenticeships continue to be promoted as an alternative to higher education, but by way of comparison, 240 000 UK under 19 year olds accepted university places for September 2016, around one in three of the cohort. In contrast, just 1,700 18 year olds began Higher Level apprenticeships –considered to be equivalent to at least the first year of university study.
It’s noticeable that women outnumber men (51.1% to 48.9%), this reflecting large numbers of starts in social care and low grade clerical work.
With apprenticeship applications continuing to outstrip vacancies, like other programs designed to accommodate ‘non-academic’ young people, apprenticeships have fallen far short.
She might have ditched the Cameron government’s Acadamisation plans but Education Secretary Justine Greening is going ahead with its Post-16 Skills Plan [i] – legalities were formalised in The Technical and Further Education Bill on Oct 27th.
The Plan commits itself to create 15 distinct ‘pathfinder’ routes into employment each with a single ‘college based’ Tech Level qualification and/or an apprenticeship -designed by employers’ representatives. The technical and apprenticeships routes, which will run alongside, but be equal in status to academic A-levels and will be the responsibility of a new Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education. The new institute, which currently exists as the Institute of Apprenticeships but, so far, with only a shadow structure will:
Determine the occupations for apprenticeships and technical education qualifications
Approve ‘standards’ and ‘technical education qualifications’ and groups to develop them
Own the ‘standards’ from which qualifications development will be based
Hold copyright of approved technical education qualifications.
The first of the routes will come into being in September 2019 and will be two-year college based programmes suitable from the age of 16, as well as those 19+, with close alignment to – or maybe even interchangeable with – the new ‘Trailblazer’ apprenticeship standards. The report says all routes will be delivered for teaching by 2022.
It all sounds relatively unproblematic: Or does it? There are some major issues.
The government, like most previous ones – in attempts to improve its standing, vocational education has been constantly reformed since the 1980s –considers the main problem is that there are too many different qualifications resulting in employers being confused and reluctant to get involved. But governments have tried to do this before. Remember New Labour’s disastrous and expensive Specialist Diplomas (!) These were supposed to replace all other vocational qualifications and were also linked to employer based sector skills councils.
It isn’t clear either, what will happen to the existing Tech Level qualifications, let alone those designated as Applied Level – but included in Post-16 performance tables and studied by around 100,000 students. The Tech Levels were also the result of Michael Gove’s own attempts to streamline vocation qualifications and to make them more rigorous.
The Plan excludes any indication of whether schools will be involved –concentrating entirely on colleges. With school funding largely based on the number of students, school are unlikely to want their ‘non-academic’ sixth formers to transfer to colleges and will look to create their own alternatives. Also, years of cuts have left colleges starved of funds.
Despite being linked together through the new Institute, the college based and apprenticeship routes remain very different. While full-time vocational learning is mostly dependent on the levels of resources available, the government has failed to persuade employers ( an apprenticeship is a job paying a wage) to expand the number of Advanced and Higher Level apprenticeships – relying on the continued growth of Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) often amongst existing employees to meet its 3 million target.
The Skills Plan like previous vocational initiatives continues to talk about the need for more ‘technician level’ skills, but studies of the labour market increasingly suggest that ‘middle’ and ‘technician’ level jobs are continuing to disappear and where they do exist are increasingly being filled by university leavers unable to find ‘graduate jobs’ – the main reason why employers do not want to expand apprenticeships.
It’s true that other European countries do have well established technical routes – and as a result they have less people going to university – but for how much longer and to what effect remains to be seen. Meanwhile the new Institute will have a big job on it hands!