By Ruth Exelby, Skills Director
The announcement by Skills Minister Nick Boles that the term ‘apprenticeship’ will be protected in law as part of the government’s drive to strengthen their reputation can only be applauded.
Once the new Enterprise Bill becomes law, apprenticeships will be given equal legal treatment as a degree which means the government can take action when the term is misused to promote low quality courses. Further, the government has pledged to ensure all public sector bodies will be set targets to take on more apprentices as part of its drive to recruit 3 million apprentices by 2020.
Whilst both these proposals are welcome, they fail to address key challenges facing businesses keen to employ an apprentice. The government’s own data, again released this month, shows a decline in the number of young people starting apprenticeships. Although funding is available to support apprenticeship training for young people under the age of 24, employers can struggle to offer a wage to match a retail entry level job.
This isn’t such an issue for a large employer, but for an SME it means that funding a Higher Level Apprenticeship, with a salary high enough to attract an employee with the right skill set, is often a pipe dream.
Even when funding isn’t a problem, as with the pledge to recruit apprentices into the public sector, we can foresee challenges ahead for the government in meeting these targets. The government rightly acknowledges that apprenticeships should be seen as a career path equal to higher education and yet it has incentivised those responsible for giving careers advice to encourage young people to stay in school.
With the withdrawal of government funding for professional careers advice in schools, this task has fallen onto the shoulders of teaching staff whose own experience will incline them to recommend an academic, rather than vocational, route. Added to that the fact that funding follows the pupil, it is in a school’s best interest to ensure as many students as possible stay on into the sixth form.
Nevertheless, both these policy initiatives are a step in the right direction in ensuring an alternative career path to higher education.