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What has the Coalition ever done for us? 

Any list of achievements usually begins with Michael Gove and his schools reforms, closely followed by Iain Duncan Smith and his welfare reforms. (David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum would be up there too – but, of course, it can only be fulfilled by the election of a majority Conservative government.)

The point is that, despite the fiscal context, the constraints of coalition and the perplexing failure of Downing Street to tell the civil service who’s boss, this is a reforming administration. 

Problems that should have been tackled decades ago are being tackled now – and a greatly under-appreciated example is the progress made towards a proper system of technical education, the absence of which has held this country back for far too long. 

Reporting for the Financial Times, Chris Cook sets out the facts:

  • “The coalition hopes to tackle [the challenge] by reforming the apprenticeship system. It has certainly made it grow. In 2011-12, 503,000 people started apprenticeships, a rise of 79 per cent since 2009-10. More Britons now start apprenticeships each year than degrees.
  • “Ministers are also supporting proposals to spread the model, allowing solicitors to train via apprenticeships, an idea currently being explored by BPP University College, a for-profit law school. This is part of a drive to open up more degree-level apprenticeship programmes.”

Of course, successful reform doesn't just depend on the quantity of apprenticeships, but on their quality too. In this regard, the Rolls-Royce standard, is set, appropriately enough, by Rolls-Royce:

  • “The scheme attracts 5,000 applicants for around 300 places. For would-be university students balking at the cost of a degree, it is an alluring offer. Apprentices can obtain degrees, gain work experience and start a career in a world-famous company while getting paid.
  • “At Rolls-Royce, former apprentices are not confined to technical roles. The Assembly and Manufacturing Leadership Development Scheme (AMLDS), which incorporates a master’s degree, turns Rolls-Royce technicians into Rolls-Royce managers and leaders.”

Oh, and the company pays its apprentices too, which is nice. 

In fact, it’s more than nice, it is essential if we are to end the insanity that forces so many young people into degree courses that don’t help them, debts that they can do without and the insulting, dispiriting rip-off that is the unpaid internship.

None of this is to disparage traditional higher education, which works well for those whose aptitudes lie in that direction. But there are other ways to excel and these must be given parity of esteem. More than that, the technical and vocational paths to advancement must be marked out as clearly as the academic path is already.

And on this point, the government looks set to make a further, valuable reform: 

  • “Young people could be able to apply for apprenticeship positions through Ucas, the higher education admissions system, in the same way that they apply for places on university courses…
  • “David Willetts, universities minister, said: ‘This is a great idea. This would provide as clear and straightforward a route into apprenticeships as there is into university.’” 

Make it so, Mr Willetts.

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