Thumbs-up for reform of apprenticeships

The Government’s plans to scrap the age limit on Modern Apprenticeships and
introduce greater flexibility to the framework have met with a universal
thumbs-up from employers, but there is uncertainty over how the expansion will
be funded in the long term.

Chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown and education and skills secretary
Charles Clarke announced the reforms on 10 May as part of the Government’s
ongoing drive to boost UK productivity.

There are now more than 255,000 MAs – up from 75,800 trainees in 1997 – and
the Government has set an ambitious target of recruiting 175,000 new apprentices
every year.

"At the moment, the Government funds up to the age of 24," says
Graham Schuhmacher, head of learning and development operations for
Rolls-Royce. "If you lift the age to retirement, you’ve got a lot of
people that need re-training. It’s the right thing to do, [but] is it
affordable?"

The Association of Colleges (AoC) – another stakeholder with praise for the
aims of the reforms – maintains that government cutbacks on funding for adult
skills is resulting in the widespread axing of skills courses in colleges
across England. "AoC has been pointing out to the Government for some time
the disparity between its ambition to drive up skills levels and the resources
being made available," says chief executive John Brennan. "There
simply is not enough money in the system to meet the targets which the
Government has set."

Funding concerns extend to another of the key reforms: the young
apprenticeship initiative, which aims to get motivated, vocationally-minded
14-to-16 year olds in the workplace for up to two days a week learning a trade.
Again, there’s no shortage of praise for the concept, but how it will work in
practice does raise questions.

"We need to be careful not to put in a two-year programme for school
pupils which is then replicated if someone decides to do an
apprenticeship," says Warwick Hall, HR operations manager for BMW’s Hams
Hall plant.

Hall believes there simply isn’t the funding in the further education system
to "stream those who’ve done young apprenticeships and those who
haven’t".

The Government is funding trials, due to start this September, for both
expanded access to over-25s and the young apprenticeship scheme.

Beyond that, there’s no guarantee, though the Learning and Skills Council’s
director of work-based learning, Stephen Gardner, said he fully expects the
schemes to roll out.

By Margaret Kubicek

Key reforms at a glance

– Reform of the MA framework is the Government’s response to
recommendations made by a national apprenticeship taskforce it launched in
2003, chaired by Sir Roy Gardner, chief executive of Centrica plc, and
comprised largely of employers.

– The framework is being re-branded as simply
‘apprenticeships’, dropping the word ‘modern’

– The age limit of 25 years is to be scrapped, opening up the
scheme to all adults

– An element of ‘portability’ is to be introduced, with
individuals able to take part-completed apprenticeships with them if they move
employer

– A ‘young apprenticeships’ scheme will enable 14-to-16 year
olds to spend up to two days a week in the workplace learning a trade

– A ‘clearing house’ will match prospective trainees to
employers, providing apprentices in the way the UCAS system provides higher
education students

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