Breaking with tradition

Many
employers fear the revamped Modern Apprenticeships scheme will still not
improve vocational standards. Why won’t reforms in its approach make any
difference? By Lucie Carrington

Employers
have been complaining about the quality of young recruits since the Middle
Ages, says John Cassels, former head of the National Economic Development
Office.

This
spring, Cassels was appointed to chair the Government’s Modern Apprenticeships
advisory committee. He and his committee have been charged with finding ways to
ratchet up the scheme and broaden its appeal among employers and young people.

“The
committee wants [Modern Apprenticeships] to take root and become an essential
part of the learning scene in Britain. We need to have a hard, practical look
at all the stages of apprenticeships,” Cassels says.

It
is the latest sign of the Government’s stated commitment to turning MAs into a
valid, vocational alternative to A-levels. But MAs are work-based, and if the
scheme is to be expanded, employers have to be kept sweet. While tightening it
up may give it a better name among young people and parents, it may not have
the same affect on employers.

Key
skills

Modern
Apprenticeships date back to 1994 when the then Conservative government
launched them on to the market for bright 16- to 17-year-olds. They offered a
paid job with on- and off-the-job training to NVQ level 3, plus training in
core skills – now called key skills – such as numeracy and communication.
Employers picked up the wages bill, but subsidies were available to cover
college-based training. Training and enterprise councils controlled the
funding.

Modern
Apprenticeships were trialled in 14 sectors. Some, such as engineering and the
chemical industry, had a reasonable track record of old-style apprenticeships.
Others, such as retail and IT, were selling the concept to employers from
scratch.

There
are now more than 80 different MA schemes – called frameworks – operating
across the country. They were developed and are maintained by National Training
Organisations.

In
theory, apprenticeships are open to anyone up to the age of 25 in England with
no age bar in Wales and Scotland. In practice, most of the money goes to fund
16- to 18-year-olds.

Following
the demise of Tecs, local learning and skills councils are due to take over
funding responsibility, and there is no sign that the emphasis on school
leavers will change.

Since
their launch, MAs have been subject to the changing circumstances of government
training policy – but, on the whole, the system has remained fairly stable.
Unfortunately it has not been hugely successful – only half of young people who
start an MA complete it and come out with NVQ level 3. So last year, the
Government began to announce a series of reforms to beef them up.

National
Traineeships, which were set up in 1997 and targeted at NVQ level 2, were
converted to Foundation Apprenticeships. In addition, the Government wants to
introduce minimum levels of off-the-job training, minimum entry requirements,
and minimum key skills targets. It wants to guarantee an apprenticeship to
every youngster who can make the grade and, to this effect, it has announced a
£180m injection to increase the number of apprenticeship places by one-third –
from 243,600 to 320,000.

The
reforms don’t end here. The then-Education and Employment Secretary David
Blunkett proposed a technical certificate as proof of the “occupational
knowledge and understanding”, and a diploma as recognition of achievements.
There is even talk of a minimum wage for Modern Apprentices.

Striking
a chord

Last
year, the DfEE put many of these proposals out for consultation with NTOs and
other stakeholders who, on the whole, are fairly favourable. They like the name
“apprenticeship” – it strikes a chord with employers and young people.

“Things
are going the right way. Everything the Government has been trying to do has
been to raise the status of Modern Apprenticeships. We want them to be seen in
the same light as A-levels and a degree by people looking at their options at
16 or 18,” says head of research and development at EMTA, Sue Peacock.

“There
does have to be some recognition that people entering the workforce need
academic and work-based learning. They aren’t alternatives.”

Of
course, the training community has concerns. There is a fear that the advisory
committee’s recommendations might water down the apprenticeship brand. When the
committee was announced, it was sold as a representative working party of
stakeholders who could come up with practical ways of promoting
apprenticeships.

But
the committee and its terms of reference suggest something else. Cassels, who
has an impressive pedigree as a thinker and policymaker in the field, is joined
largely by other thinkers and policymakers, including Richard Layard, director
of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, and
Helen Edwards, chief executive of Nacro.

They
have also been charged with coming up with ideas for all other youth training,
including people with special needs and those who aren’t yet capable of reaching
NVQ level 2. “I would be concerned if the Government tried to bring them all
under the modern apprenticeship label,” Peacock says.

More
worryingly for the Government, employers feel the changes are irrelevant and
simply add to the bureaucracy. This concerns Richard Beamish, chief executive
of the Print and Graphic Communications NTO. “The reforms over foundation
apprenticeships, off-the-job training, technical certificates, key skills and
so on are all logical, but they put barriers in the way of employers,” he says.

He
cites key skills as one example. Last year, the Government was suggesting that
apprentices should aim for level 3 communication skills, equivalent to A-level
English. And even though it seems likely that this will be reduced to level 2,
it is still a tall order for young people who have chosen not to follow the
academic route.

Keith
Donnelly, general manager for craft training at building firm Carillion, runs a
massive apprenticeship programme for the construction industry, taking on about
800 youngsters a year. He is particularly annoyed by the Government’s approach
to key skills.

“We
are dealing with people who did not cope well with the world of school. But
just because they aren’t academically gifted does not mean they can’t make great
bricklayers,” he says. “I understand the Government’s agenda, but I feel we are
being asked to make up the shortfall in the education system over the past
decade.”

Tests
for tests’ sake?

Steven
Donnelly, HR manager for Welsh printing firm Smurfit Print UK, currently
employs 12 apprentices. All of them have a minimum of five GCSEs at grade C. As
far as he is concerned, they have already proved that they are both literate
and numerate.

“When
we’re attracting individuals with good levels of literacy and numeracy, I
question whether they should have to go through the process of doing the same
thing for the sake of it,” he says.

But
what really upsets employers is that none of the Government’s reforms seems to
be getting to the essence of the problem for them – poor and inconsistent
organisation.

Tony
Longmire, technical and training director of LGH Group, takes on six
engineering apprentices a year. They are based across the country and he has
had to negotiate with each Tec separately. “Each Tec had its own agenda, its
own funding arrangements and the authority to choose which bits of the modern
apprenticeship it wanted to offer,” Longmire says.

Nor
is he happy with the lack of understanding from colleges on why employers get
involved. One college refused to register apprentices for funding purposes in
case they dropped out, while another threatened him with the Data Protection
Act when he tried to confirm the attendance record of a trainee – who, it
turned out, had been bunking off college.

For
the moment, the benefits of MAs still outweigh the disadvantages – the name
attracts good people, it is fairly flexible and government funding keeps
apprenticeship programmes afloat.

Many
employers already involved are putting their faith and hope in Learning and
Skills Councils. They shouldn’t hold their breath – there may be fewer LSCs
than Tecs, but they will still be concerned with their own regional needs.

Finally,
whatever the Government says, employer involvement is not high on the national
LSC agenda. There is only Kim Parish with a personnel and training background
on its 13-strong young people’s learning committee.  MAs may not yet be for you.

Timeline
Modern Apprenticeships

1994
– MAs for 16- to 17-year-olds piloted in 14 sectors including chemicals,
engineering, retailing and IT. Aimed at bright school leavers, they offered
employed status and the opportunity to reach NVQ level 3

1995
– MAs rolled out nationally and offered in 80 sectors

1997
– Government launches National Traineeships following the Dearing review of
qualifications. Traineeships take school leavers to NVQ level 2

2000
– Traineeships renamed Foundation Modern Apprenticeships, and MAs became
Advanced Modern Apprenticeships

Further
reforms include: minimum amount of off-the-job training, technical certificates
and an apprenticeship diploma

2001
– MAs to be available to every young person who can meet the entry standards

Government
sets up MA advisory committee to recommend further reforms

Scotland
announces that it will formally scrap the age limit on apprenticeships

2002
– £15m Standards Fund for Apprenticeships to keep training providers on their
toes to come on stream

2001-2004
– Target for number of apprentices set to rise by one-third

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