James Palmer is the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

The Conservative Party should be proud of its record on apprenticeships over the past seven years. We’ve done a huge amount to put apprenticeships in the spotlight, and to reverse the trend whereby the number of people engaged in apprenticeships was declining year upon year.

Over the past seven years, there has been a significant increase in the numbers engaged in good quality apprenticeships, and the current government’s ambition to hit the three million apprenticeship figure by 2020 is absolutely the right one. However, there is a lot more work to do. Earlier this month disappointing figures were published regarding the number starting apprenticeships, and questions are being raised regarding the effectiveness of the apprenticeship levy. There was a 61 per cent drop in the number starting apprenticeships between 2015/2016 and 2016/2017 (from 113,000 to 43,600).

I’m a passionate believer in the merits of apprenticeships, and the need for us to go further in promoting them. Despite the recent change in the rhetoric around apprenticeships and the way in which they’re perceived by the Government, there remains a problem. Too often, apprenticeships continue to be seen as a second-class option, with the main focus still very much being on the academic route, meaning class room based A levels and University, even for those who might not be suited to this path. As is the case in many other countries, we need to move beyond the view that the purely academic route to university is for everyone. Too many people do not realise that there are multiple pathways to prosperity.

As a new Mayor who passionately believes in apprenticeships, I believe that the Government can take the following steps to reform the system, and ensure its ambitions are fully translated into concrete results that would give a big boost to our economy and the prospects of our young people.

For a start, the message needs to go out from an earlier age that apprenticeship might well be the route to an extremely successful and fulfilling life. As a result, the Government should consider introducing a requirement that careers education should begin in primary school. This is where attitudes first begin to form with regard to university and apprenticeships. I would very much hope that local further education colleges would support this activity in primary schools. Exposing children in years five and six to a high quality and balanced introduction to career choices would enable them to make more informed decisions post-16.

More crucial than this change, though, is ensuring that schools and teachers are properly incentivised and rewarded for placing pupils into top-quality apprenticeship schemes. A way needs to be found to reform the Ofsted school league table system to measure not only academic excellence but also technical excellence.

Perhaps instead of merely being awarded league table points for the number of pupils who score five GCSE’s (A*-C), schools could also get points for the number of pupils they place into apprenticeship schemes? Another option would be for FE colleges, during Ofsted inspections, to rate the secondary school in question from “Outstanding” to “Inadequate” for its engagement and the breadth of its careers advice. If a school is rated as, “requires improvement” or “inadequate”, this would enable inspectors to go further in examining the school’s approach to vocational courses and apprenticeships.

Ultimately something needs to change. If all the financial incentives and measurements of performance for schools are based purely on academic success, then this will inevitably cap the potential of the Government’s skills agenda, and propagate a school system that is overly one dimensional in its relentless focus on steering all pupils towards the university route, even when it may not be appropriate. The vast majority of incentives at present, whether financial or performance related, encourage schools to direct pupils towards A levels and then onto University.

Over the past seven years, we have made considerable progress as a country when it comes to the provision of apprenticeships but we still lag behind many of our continental rivals. This will only be reversed if we’re prepared to be bold when it comes to reforming the way in which schools are assessed by ensuring that a more rounded picture of a school emerges following an assessment, one which reflects not only the academic results achieved by a school but also the technical excellence and the level of support provided to pupils in enabling them to secure apprenticeship places.

The current system is focused almost exclusively on measuring the percentage of a school’s pupils who secure 5 GCSE’s (A*-C) incl. English and Maths. Clearly scoring well when it comes to academic results remains vital for a school. However, the reforms I’ve proposed here wouldn’t just enable those pupils who succeed academically to have a choice; they would also provide hope to those who are unlikely to succeed academically. The reforms would give teeth to the Government’s skills agenda, and would give all schools a strong incentive to ensure that all its pupils flourish, whether they are of an academic bent or not.

Creating a skilled workforce is central to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough addressing its productivity challenge. This will only be possible with an apprenticeship system fit for the challenges of the twenty-first century. In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, we have the right mix of ambitious youngsters, world beating businesses that are supportive of the apprenticeship agenda and fantastic further education colleges such as Cambridge Regional College. However, without the right careers support in schools starting from an early age and changes to the way in which schools are assessed, I fear that the Government won’t hit its objectives regarding the skills agenda.

Over the summer I attended a graduation ceremony at a world-leading company in the optics industry, as it celebrated the achievements of half a dozen young apprentices. They had spent two years acquiring a unique set of skills that will enable them to have extremely fulfilling careers. Perhaps like the current directors of the company, who also started off as apprentices, they could one day end up managing this globally renowned company themselves. One thing is for sure, they had the look of young people who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives and, what is more, they can be confident that they have the skills that they need to get there without having to pay off student debt along the way.