Careers guidance should be boosting apprenticeships, says shadow minister Gordon Marsden 

The BIS Select Committee has provided a detailed and disturbing commentary of this government’s handling of apprenticeships and highlighted a number of persistent shortcomings.

The committee came down hard on the government for lacking a coherent over-arching strategy for apprenticeships as well as highlighting continuing concerns that they should be a pathway to new skills, rather than accreditation of existing ones.

This remains an unresolved challenge for ministers and officials, but something that one can expect Doug Richard to pick up on in his forthcoming report.

It’s that lack of coherence and progression the report highlights — and the potential waste of money and impact it implies — that needs to be tackled urgently.

Part of this must be the importance of maintaining quality, an issue FE Week has rightly highlighted and which the committee’s report re-emphasised.

It was also good to see the committee underlining the vital role careers guidance plays in supporting young people towards apprenticeships.

But, as Jason Holt in a report the Department commissioned recently pointed out, changes that came about following the abolition of Connexions and the DFE-led axing of ring-fenced funding and statutory guidelines have seen guidance, that could promote apprenticeships among schoolchildren, drastically scaled back.

Guidance that could promote apprenticeships among schoolchildren has been drastically scaled back”

The pressure is rightly building on both DfE and BIS ministers over this — especially given the final data for 2011/12 which showed 16 to 18 apprenticeships falling by 2 per cent in comparison with last year — at a time where youth unemployment remains at its highest level for generation.

The detailed statistics on the numbers of apprenticeship starts falling in key areas like engineering and construction only reinforces that.

The new FE minister, Matthew Hancock, needs to tackle that gap in support and funding with action. Jason Holt, the National Audit Office and now the Select Committee have all rung the warning bells that the government still has work to do to.

It could start by implementing our sensible proposals to boost apprenticeships, which we launched earlier in the year.

These included using public procurement to ensure government contractors offer apprenticeship placements and encouraging larger companies to buddy-up with smaller ones in their supply chain.

But it has so far refused to engage with these practical suggestions.

The government’s done little so far to make it easier for small to medium-sized enterprises to take on apprentices — or to work out ways to get local enterprise partnerships and FE colleges more connected to them — on top of their hands-off attitude to proactive vocational guidance in schools.

Progression must be the backdrop to balance age range, quality and outcomes in the apprenticeship programme with improved pathways to progress from levels two, three, four and beyond — but also into university.

The government’s done little so far to make it easier for small to medium-sized enterprises to take on apprentices”

I am particularly concerned that changes UCAS has come forward with for changing the university tariff system should not leave apprenticeships and vocational qualifications at a disadvantage.

If we truly want to maintain apprenticeships as a gold standard alternative to the academic route, then it must have the same structures for progression as the latter.

What the select committee says about the danger of 19 to 24-year-olds falling through the funding gap is also worrying.

It is a group we need to focus on as strongly as 16 to 18-year-olds because they often have false starts at school and elsewhere. We owe it to them — as we do older learners — to see they have the best chance of securing apprenticeships second time around, but the looming shadow of FE loans threatens a substantial fall-off in adult apprenticeships.

The government needs to engage with what Richard says to ensure that, as the select committee warned, quality does not get lost in the drive for quantity. There is no point chasing ever-inflatng numbers if at the end of the day, you let down the very people taking up apprenticeships in the hope of better future prospects and life chances.

Gordon Marsden MP, Shadow Minister for Further Education, Skills and Regional Growth