Since the launch of Modern Apprenticeships in 1994 there has been a welcome (and very necessary) cross-party support for the renaissance and expansion of apprenticeships. But this progress is now in danger of going into reverse.
Antiquated eighteenth-century thinking frames new policy that is being rolled out under the guise of ‘quality’. Worse still, the the opportunity to develop the centrality of Learning at Work for all, is slipping through our fingers. This sad state of affairs is to the detriment of workers, employers and the economy as a whole.
People learn more work skills at work than anywhere else. This is often supported by theoretical input from schools, further education colleges and higher education institutions. Traditional apprenticeships used to harness this fact, using the handed-down skills of older, skilled workers to train (mostly male) youngsters in engineering, construction and manufacturing. But there was a catch: if you missed out between 14 and 17 you missed out!
The re-launch of Modern Apprenticeships in 1994 not only brought the increasingly important service sectors on board, often with a majority female workforce, but it demanded employer-designed ‘frameworks’ that focused on the achievement of competence (unrecognised and opposed by many educationalists) and banished ‘time serving’.
This meant that you were able to complete a recognised apprenticeship as soon as you were competent and could demonstrate that competence to employer and independent assessor alike. It also allowed older learners, who had previously missed out to develop their latent talent and start to plug the skills gaps and shortages the country was beginning to correctly worry about.
This new flexible approach – which the Germans incidentally are latching onto – offered a second chance to a couple of generations of unskilled and semi-skilled adults (numbered in millions). It would do this by recognising how far away, or how close, adults were from a fully skilled level, as defined by the employer defined apprenticeship frameworks. Secondly it would move them from – at best – informal Work Based Learning and top up their competences to full apprenticeship level. Thirdly, and best of all, it opened up the chance for those with further potential to move into a higher level programme, be that to level two, level three, or level four and higher.
In essence, it enabled everyone to work towards achieving a fully-recognised apprenticeship, and to move up a level as soon as they could prove their competence.
But we now have all the political parties running scared because of a few isolated incidents over the past few years concerning short-course apprenticeships that are wrecking the apprenticeship ‘brand’. These are, for the most now part, resolved. The short sighted are arguing that apprenticeships are only for 16-18 year-olds, must last for pre-set minimum periods disregarding the capability of many to move more quickly, (or take longer if needed), and leaving adults to the well-intentioned whims of informal WBL. Back to the 18th Century!
Let us please move away from short term thinking and take a strategic look at the country’s skill needs – focusing on people of all ages. Youth employment is not the same issue as providing effective apprenticeships, though they are of course linked.
To get it right, Labour must explore everyone’s latent, actual and potential skills. This will unquestionably also have a very positive impact on youth unemployment. Britain would then also have a flexible all-age, all sector, employer designed and owned, competence-based system. We would ‘learn at work’ throughout our lives, making even the Germans envious.
Graham Hoyle OBE is retired chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers.