If you relied on mainstream press and broadcasting media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that apprenticeships were something from the past, says Professor John Field

What a mess we’ve made of apprentice- ships. The Select Committee on Business, Industry and Skills found that a sizeable minority of apprentices receive no training whatsoever; the system is riddled with conflicts of interest, often unreported and largely unresolved; profit levels appear to be inflated by government grants; some employers simply badge existing training as an apprenticeship to claim funding; the system involves de facto age discrimination, with no apparent rationale, as well as gender discrimination in some trades. Worse, the uneven quality of training has damaged public perceptions of apprenticeship schemes in general.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has followed online debate. But if you relied on mainstream press and broadcast- ing media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that apprenticeships were something from the past, inherited from the medieval craft guilds, and unsuited to a modern economy.

And it is true that the apprenticeship system that operated until the 1980s was flawed. Lads followed dads, excluding many women and immigrants; whether a particular craft was included or not was often a matter of historical accident (and workforce gendering); and craft status often became a pawn in collective bargaining, bedding rigidities into a system that should indeed have been modernised as industry and skills requirements changed.

But instead of modernising apprenticeships, the Thatcher government chose to smash them. In place of backward-looking, time-served, tripartite apprenticeships it promoted the go- ahead standards-based competency model of the National Vocational Qualifications system. Apprenticeship systems survived in small pockets, but for the most part they vanished as employers replaced them with short, cheap training schemes.

By contrast, a number of other European countries opted to modernise their apprentice- ship systems. They retained the principle of social partnership, seeking to work out the problems of modernisation through consulta- tion and negotiation. And they tried to match the new, flexible forms of work practices needed for European industry to survive.

The result was by no means perfect. Gender segregation often survived, with young women dominating apprenticeships in traditional female areas and males in engineering and IT.

Flexibility was sometimes insufficiently developed, as shown most notably in Germany’s attempt to impose a (western) model of apprenticeship on the very different labour market of the former East Germany. It is still far too difficult for adults to upskill or reskill.

But these were and are seen as reasons for reforming a high quality pathway to highly skilled labour. Hilary Steedman’s report for the International Labour Organisation identifies a number of features of successful apprentice- ship schemes that, she shows, have helped to reduce youth unemployment and maintain labour quality.

But what interests me particularly is that none of this is new. Campaigners and research- ers have blogged repeatedly on the topic, and there has been sustained coverage in the redoubtable FE Week. Academics such as Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller have written and spoken about the policy flaws. Think tanks and the National Audit Office got involved. And while trade unions have generally been quiet, individuals such as Tom Wilson of UnionLearn have raised tough questions about the treat- ment of this vulnerable group of workers.

Yet the mainstream press has had little to say about another sorry chapter in the long story of Britain’s problem with vocational skills. Hats off, then, to the handful of stubborn geeky buggers who have worked hard to raise concern over what is an important issue, but not sexy, fashionable or high status enough.

Now we move on to the much tougher task of building an apprenticeship system that is fit for purpose. The Select Committee’s recom- mendations cover eight pages. So far the Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, has issued a bland statement affirming the value of apprentice- ships and promising to look at improvements. FE Week will no doubt be watching.

Professor John Field, director of research in the school of education at the University of Sterling in lifelong learning. 

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