In recent years, there has been a real push by policymakers to promote apprenticeships. But more needs to be done to integrate higher apprenticeships into the DNA of our labour market.
A major roadblock has been a lack of clear communication on what defines an apprenticeship and a higher apprenticeship. A traditional apprenticeship provides work-based learning qualifications to Level 2 (five GCSEs at grades A-C) whereas higher apprenticeships provide advanced work-based learning qualifications at Level 4 and above.
In my view, higher apprenticeships have a proven track record.
They provide valuable skills training and work experience in sectors of the economy that are in demand (i.e. engineering and accountancy). They promote social mobility, by offering an alternative pathway into professions which have their roots in higher education. And they provide value for money in public spending.
The current skills landscape is problematic.
A Centre for Cities and ICAEW report on skills for future jobs found that some of England’s weakest economies have the largest proportion of people with no formal qualifications. The report argued that a central component to any long-term growth strategy required an emphasis on skills.
Even more concerning is the fact that only 33 per cent of apprenticeships in England are at advanced level. And current provision does not consider that different age groups will require different levels of training and development. This needs to change.
The government has rightly allocated £18.7m from the Higher Apprenticeship Fund to support sectors including advanced engineering and financial services. And the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) is consulting on how the current Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for England (SASE) can incorporate new Higher Apprenticeship frameworks at Level 6 and above. NAS is expected to report in 2013, but immediate action is still required.
To remain globally competitive, we need to acknowledge the fact that higher apprenticeships provide a valuable route for developing high-quality skills for growth. Policymakers need to encourage collaboration with employers and professional bodies to develop new higher apprenticeships and ensure they become a core component of any strategy for growth.
Local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and local authorities must now prioritise the promotion of higher apprenticeships for the sake of their regional economies. All LEPs should work with employers and skills providers to improve awareness and access to higher apprenticeships.
And in cities with poor levels of educational attainment, higher apprenticeships must be promoted as an alternative route to a professional career in schools. University cannot be the only pathway for accessing a professional career.
Higher apprenticeships support growth and fair access to the professions. Engagement today will help to ensure that they become a recognised feature of our economy and society.