David Cameron could have spoken about many policies in his agenda when he addressed the nation outside Number 10 Downing Street having been re-elected as Prime Minister — but he chose apprenticeships. David Allison considers the task ahead.

No matter who you talk to in the education sector, we are all waiting with bated breath to see what the unforeseen Conservative majority will actually deliver.For schools, it is likely that the onward march of academies and free schools will continue.

For schools, it is likely that the onward march of academies and free schools will continue.

For FE colleges, there will be challenges across the board — from 16 to 18 provision to further reductions in the Adult Skills Budget that has been cut so much in recent years.

The one area where there is more certainty is apprenticeships.

When David Cameron stood outside Number 10 as our newly-elected Prime Minister on Friday, May 8, he had many flagship policies he could have talked about.

The re-negotiation with Europe was one, fixing the economy another, or possibly even investment in the NHS. But it was none of these.

It was… apprenticeships. Now whether you agree that this rather single-minded focus on just one educational approach is right or wrong, there is general cross party support for the concept of ‘on-the-job’ training for young people as an alternative to the ‘academic’ approach offered by universities.

Unless there is a change in approach, the 3m apprentices are not going to come easy

This means that for FE colleges and independent learning providers alike, the one area of certainty that we can all work on is a significant growth in apprentice numbers.

This growth is not going to be easy. Much was made in the election campaign of the ‘decline’ in new apprentices in the last academic year and unless there is a change in approach, the 3m apprentices are not going to come easy.

As has been noted by many commentators before, growth in apprenticeships has to be as much about quality as quantity.

My concern is that with this public — and very ambitious — commitment to a volume of apprentices the government will now have to hit it, one way or another.

Those of us that have been in the sector for some time will recognise the cycle that sometimes follows.

Large scale government commitments that are not being achieved lead to a ‘relaxation’ in standards — either through more flexible eligibility criteria, or through lower educational requirements and standards.

One thing we can all agree on is that a relaxation in standards will do nothing for apprenticeships as a whole — and certainly not the young people that go through them.

So how do we make the most of this situation? Good apprenticeships are those that meet the needs of an employer; high quality candidates that are available when the business needs them and high quality education, training and assessment that fill the skills gaps that have been identified.

One of the facts that we have observed when looking at both candidate and vacancy data is the importance of timing.

Successful candidates join a business when both the business needs them, and the young person wants to start.

This may sound obvious, but understanding the link between the two will be critical to growth of high quality apprenticeships.

In a recent survey that we undertook with individuals that applied for an apprenticeship, there was good news in that about 20 per cent had found an apprenticeship and started it while 36 per cent were still looking, 16 per cent had found work without an apprenticeship and 14 per cent had returned to full time education. The slightly scary fact was that in the survey, when we explored attitudes to training with the 16 per cent that had found work, the vast majority — 95 per cent of them — had no interest in undertaking any further training and showed no interest in an apprenticeship.

So what happened to these young people to change their view? By definition these young people were employable — they had also been interested in, and applied for an apprenticeship.

Having found work, their interest in education appears to have disappeared. Furthermore, why had these businesses that employed 16 to 18-year-olds not thought that an apprenticeship was a good way of helping equip their business with the right skills for the future?

These are questions that we all need to ponder, and solve. If we don’t, I foresee an era of lower standards and a time when quantity becomes the measure of success and that won’t benefit anyone.