Delivering high quality vocational education and technical training.
In the grip of grammar school mania, it’s unsurprising so little attention was paid to the recent NAO report on the Government’s apprenticeship scheme. That’s unsurprising but a shame, as apprenticeships are likely to have a greater impact on the public than a few new selective schools.
Apprenticeships and vocational education generally are popular. In the detailed landscape polling I commissioned last year at Policy Exchange, C1 and C2 voters put improving vocational education near the very top of their education policy priorities – behind improving discipline and cutting class sizes, long the twin obsessions of parents.
Their popularity amongst these lower middle class voters makes sense. They are the group that would benefit from better apprenticeships most. Alternatives to £27,000 degrees, which are both high-skill and that offer career growth, such vocational qualifications are highly attractive – particularly when we know that middle class women in particular struggle to find good career prospects.
But that is not what the Government is likely to offer, as the NAO’s report suggests. Most apprenticeship growth in this country has been low skill: what is called “Level 2”. Level 2 courses have poor, even negative, wage returns. The number of “real apprenticeships” – high skill, like the ones that are the norm in parts of Europe – remain the minority.
Because of the Government’s three million target, that is likely to continue. The only way they can achieve such high targets with current funding levels is by prioritising low-skill, low-cost apprenticeships. This helps no one but Ministers trumpeting statistics in Parliament.
Meanwhile, an equally baffling decision to exempt around 98 per cent of employers from the apprenticeship levy means that big companies will hoover up funding and places. As a result young apprentices in areas dominated by small employers – in those areas the Government wants to revitalise – will lose out.
High-level apprenticeships work: there is very strong evidence that they are good for individuals and good for the economy. But to achieve their potential the government needs to do three things.
First, drop the apprenticeship target and replace it with a commitment to high quality, technical apprenticeships with tough standards. Second, ignore the lobbying from the CBI on the apprenticeship levy and expand it to treat employers equally. In countries like Denmark and Germany – with thriving industrial sectors – employers pay in. We need to do the same. Third, treat apprenticeships as a proper alternative to university, with the same funding and support attached.
The truth is, the media don’t find apprenticeships terribly interesting. The Government won’t get big PR wins if they do this. But a serious industrial strategy, and a real commitment to the lives of the “just about managing”, demands it.