Conor Ryan on translating cross-party backing for apprenticeships into a serious offer for young people after the next election.

This year’s party conferences were all about setting the scene for next May’s general election. But aside from the tax cuts, coalition in-fighting or forgotten deficits, there was a surprising degree of consensus on the importance of one issue that could be crucial to social mobility: apprenticeships.

Ed Miliband pledged that as many young people would start on good quality apprenticeships as go to university by 2025. The Prime Minister made the commitment to three million more apprenticeship starts in the next parliament.  Business Secretary Vince Cable promised to lift apprentice pay. This was an issue that was talked about at Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Having placed apprenticeships as one of the ten core social mobility policies in our Mobility Manifesto, and, in partnership with Pearson, organised platforms to debate the issue at all three conferences, this was to be welcomed. Yet beneath the big numbers, the issue remains about what the pledges mean in practice.

For years, politicians have played a numbers game on apprenticeships. A good apprenticeship should offer a paid job (often at lower than average rates) with a strong combination of on-the-job and college-based training, preferably through day release, leading to a good qualification. They typically last two to three years.

But in the early years of the coalition the majority of new ‘apprenticeships’ were only at level 2 (GCSE standard) and many lasted a matter of months. Many of the new apprenticeships, especially those at higher levels, were also for older rather than younger people. These qualifications will often not have represented genuine training to enter employment, but certification of existing skills for those already working (essentially a rebranding of Labour’s Train to Gain offer).

That has started to change. No longer will shelf-stacking at Morrison’s be treated as being as much an apprenticeship as an elite course at British Aerospace or Rolls Royce. Apprenticeships cannot be a matter of months; they must last at least a year. The training element has been strengthened too.

But we are still a long way from where we need to be. The danger is that if politicians engage in a quick fix numbers game, quantity will once again trump quality. In that sense, a commitment to an extra 300,000 good quality apprenticeships each year at level 3 (A-level standard) or above in a decade’s time may be of more value than three million places over the next five years, if the vast majority are at level 2 and too few are for young people. The parties need to provide detail.

That’s why the analysis prepared by the Boston Consulting Group for the Sutton Trust last year, and the recommendations that emerged from our joint summit with Pearson in July are so important. They offer a route map of where we need to be if we are serious about making apprenticeships a world class brand rather than a catch-all title for courses at all levels.

Vince Cable told our fringe meeting in Glasgow that it was absolutely right to focus on advanced and higher apprenticeships for young people in any expansion. Matthew Hancock, the former skills secretary, told our July summit that he was expanding them significantly. Ed Miliband told the same summit that he wanted new technical degrees that would offer a more advanced apprenticeship route. He made the expansion of good quality apprenticeships – along the lines recommended in the Sutton Trust/BCG report – one of his six key policy commitments.

But it is going to be a real challenge moving from rhetoric to reality. For a start, a key part of the best systems would involve a fundamental change in the mindset of government and employers. We need to have progression within a three year apprenticeship, where level 3 or above is the goal, rather than getting young people to complete a separate level 2 apprenticeship before joining one that will lead to level three. That changes ambition, and recognises that different young people may need to start in a different place.

Then, we need a cultural change. To some extent, it is already happening. Middle class newspapers openly promote apprenticeships in a way that they previously reserved for higher education. Politicians see them as a vote-winner. But we still are some way from parents of all backgrounds treating a good apprenticeship as being as valid an option for advancement as many university courses. With fewer than one in five employers offering apprenticeships, we are also a long way from the German system where one in two does so.

And we need to look at incentives: enhanced destination data to encourage schools to promote apprenticeships and more financial support to increase employer engagement, backed by greater simplicity in the range of qualifications and the right intermediary bodies. We may not be able to replicate the German system, but we should try to emulate their ambition. There is now a degree of welcome political consensus that apprenticeships will play a big role in the options offered to young people after the next election. We need to translate that cross-party ambition into an apprenticeship system that matches the best in the world.


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