We need to send out a clear message about apprenticeships — don’t dumb down the brand, says Graham Hasting-Evans.

An independent review of apprenticeships published in November called on the government to improve their quality and make them more focused on bosses’ needs.

Its author, Doug Richard, entrepreneur, educator, former Dragon’s Den star and founder of School for Startups, was asked to consider the future of apprenticeships in England, and to recommend how they could meet the needs of the changing economy.

His subsequent findings recognised the good provision that exists today, but emphasised the need for greater ambition if all apprenticeships were to meet the standards of the best.

Commenting on the launch of his review, Doug said: “No matter who I speak with, everyone agrees that apprenticeships are a good thing – but only when they are ‘true’ apprenticeships. With the myriad of learning experiences which are currently labeled as apprenticeships, we risk losing sight of the core features of what makes apprenticeships work, so my conclusion is that we need to look again at what it means to be an apprentice and what it means to offer an apprenticeship as an employer.”

Although not everyone agrees with everything he said, he did make a few points that I personally believe make sense; including things that we, as a sector have been concerned about for some time.

He echoed debates that have been reported in these very pages. For example, that the title ‘apprenticeship’ should be reserved only for jobs requiring sustained and substantial training.

We need to avoid calling every programme of vocational training an ‘apprenticeship’. We risk undermining the true benefit of this key way of delivering the skills that industries need.

Earlier in November the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee also published a report on apprenticeships, highlighting areas of the government’s apprenticeships programme which needed to be developed.

Commenting on the report — the result of an 11 month inquiry — the chairman of the BIS Committee, Adrian Bailey MP, said: “The apprenticeship programme can play a key role in resolving some of this country’s most pressing issues. It can help us to create a more skilled workforce, to increase employment and to generate sustainable economic growth.” He concluded: “Young people in this country should be given every chance to fulfill their potential in school, in work and in life.”

While apprenticeships may need a new look for 2013, it would be well to remember that they have been around a long time. In the building industry they refer to apprenticeships for the “biblical skills” which gives you some idea about how long these have been in existence. Traditional apprenticeships, like those in building and other professions and trades, have a long and successful history. For generations they have given employers confidence that the person with the apprenticeship ticket can do what it says on the certificate.

Over the last decade an increasing number of apprenticeships have been developed for other skill areas. This is to be applauded in principle. We all  recognise that an apprenticeship needs to include:

• A period of working under supervision and being developed to be completely competent (work based)

• Theoretical knowledge and understanding;

• The common skills that employers look to for all employers – functional skills and employability skills;

• Employment rights and responsibilities;

• Safety; and

•Personal learning and thinking skills

All over this is very good BUT (and there is always a but isn’t there?) the apprentice needs a sensible period of time in which to gain all this knowledge and practical
experience.

We have to realise that this may vary between skills, but what is crucial is that employers have confidence in the time that the apprentice has been studying and learning in the work-based environment.

There is a major risk that funding and time pressures can result in corners being cut. Organisations try to get apprentices through the whole process in timescales that allow them no time to really achieve the required standards which an employer wants and needs.

Let’s not make the mistake of dumbing down apprenticeships and damaging a respected institution that has a long and successful track record. In short let’s not damage a great brand that’s been around for centuries by short-termism!

Graham Hasting-Evans is the managing director of the National Open College Network