Ian Nash on the second day of the Sutton Trust-Pearson Higher Ambitions Summit, including keynote speeches from Professor Alison Wolf and Sir Michael Barber.

Leading educationists at the Higher Ambitions Summit called for a cross-party political consensus aimed at creating a world-class apprenticeship system they say has eluded the UK for at least four decades.

Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College, London, said the priority had to start by addressing labour market needs: “It’s the labour market context in which policy is being made and will determine what will be achieved. The single most important thing going on in education now is the apprenticeship reform programme. It is so important that it’s not constantly changed and as a chance to bed down.”

There have been major changes in the labour market including the disappearance of old-style youth employment. “It’s increasingly not the case that you can leave school and get a job. This has led to a growth in 16 to 18 full-time education. Colleges are now dominated by full-time young people and part-time provision for young people has almost disappeared.”

Because of the changing structure of the labour market apprenticeships could not be just in manufacturing. “It’s pointless to believe that everyone can have a manufacturing apprenticeship if only we could get ourselves together because manufacturing is shrinking fast. The growth areas are in care assistants and retail.”

The problem with the old system of vocational education was its orientation not towards employers but to government programmes. The rot had started in the 1980s, Wolf said. “Until the 1970s, we had an apprenticeship system which was a functioning system of the standard sort. The Thatcher Government set out to destroy apprenticeships because it was a closed shop in effect and successive government pursued this agenda.”

It would take years to restore this unless governments stopped changing the system and pulling it up by the roots with every change of administration. “I think the current apprenticeship reforms are right, they return it to employers and concentrate on end-of-apprenticeship mastering and assessment. I think the government should hold its nerve and cross-party consensus should prevail.”

Responding to concerns from summit participants that small employers would not be willing to foot the bill the government expects of them, Wolf said the current system of apprenticeships was “unfit for purpose and you cannot have two parallel systems”. Small employers had got used to the UK government paying, unlike in Germany where they were expected to and did pay. She predicted that the apprenticeships that would disappear were not worth having “and that would be a good thing”.

Sir Michael Barber endorsed much of what Professor Wolf had said and called for a sustained cross-party approach rooted in efforts to increase social mobility. “Could we not get a 10-year agenda to really build on what has been started? It’s about social mobility since skills are a way to making successful advances in society,” he said.

“We need to professionalise the whole thing and it needs building over a sustained period of five to ten years at least. We need to think of apprenticeships as a job with education and training rather than a course young people embark on. And we need to radically change employer attitudes. Simply offering an excuse that you are a small employer is not good enough.”

To succeed, however, apprenticeships needed Rolls Royce-standard facilities, whether in the workplace, college or training centre and the employers needed people who were not only a part of the business but top-class teachers, trainers and facilitators. “Apprenticeships also need to be valued and endorsed by schools,” he added.

In addition, the awarding bodies needed to pre-empt government appeals for better assessment by producing world-class qualifications rather than waiting to react to government demands. Pearson is starting to do this by creating a panel of world-class experts from Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, Harvard University and leading universities and schools in the UK.

“We finally have the opportunity to build on the process of recent year, to get cross-party agreement. If we are going to get the culture change we require, we need to pursue it over successive generations,” he said.

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