Germany beats England hands down on apprenticeships, so what can we learn?

The looming general election gives the sector a chance to take the lead in shaping the next stage of skills policy, writes Graham Hasting-Evans

The looming general election gives the sector a chance to take the lead in shaping the next stage of skills policy, writes Graham Hasting-Evans

1 Jul 2023, 5:00

With our focus on the shortage of many skilled occupations, and the ongoing debate over recruiting from overseas, NOCN has looked at what makes the German apprenticeship system successful. From this, we have been able to draw out key lessons for UK educational policy.

The reform of our English apprenticeship system began in Autumn 2013 with the first wave of Trailblazers, followed by the new apprenticeship levy and the creation of IfATE in 2017.

Ten years on, while higher and degree apprenticeship starts have increased, total apprenticeship starts have declined by one-third, with level 2 starts declining by two-thirds and level 3 starts by one-quarter.

On the positive side, we now have better occupational standards. There are 673 live as of May this year, covering all sectors of the economy. However, only 360 are at the traditional levels 2 and 3.

In Germany, by contrast, starts have held up well despite Covid. Germany has about 330 state-recognised craft and technical standards, or occupations. In that, the two countries are similar.

However, half of German school leavers (15-18) move on to vocational training, with one-third contracting to do apprenticeships, compared with only 6 per cent of English school leavers (16-18). Germany’s involvement of SMEs in the system is better too, 98 per cent there against 41 per cent here. And although Germany measure completions slightly differently, their rate is about 87 per cent compared to our 54 per cent. Finally, Germany’s proportion of apprenticeship starts relative to population is 0.6 per cent. Ours is 0.4 per cent at levels 2 and 3.

What we do have more of is organisations. Our apprenticeships system is fragmented, with skills policy controlled by DfE through ESFA, IfATE and Ofqual and trade and professional bodies dealing with IfATE. In Germany, there is a single organisation, with 630 staff. Independent of ministers, it is driven by industry requirements through collaboration with regional and national chambers of industry, commerce and crafts.

The German government funds formal training, while employers cover costs of the apprentices. There is no complex, inflexible apprenticeship levy, which seems to result in greater employer engagement at all levels.

Half of German school-leavers move to vocational training

And finally, while our FE system is still seen by many as secondary to the ‘preferred’ academic route, German technical occupations are the only route for employees to find work and for employers to find skilled workers. The importance of occupational training is embedded in the systems from age 11, giving credibility and encouraging engagement.

It is also clear that it will not be possible to lift and shift the German system to England. Its very structured approach makes it too rigid for that, and in any case hampers its ability to adapt to the agile requirements needed for net-zero and digitisation.

Realistically, with a general election due within the next 18 months, it is unlikely that we will see fundamental change soon. But this creates an opportunity for the sector to take the lead in shaping the next stage of evolution for our skills.

It needs to be streamlined, easy to use and embrace localities and trade bodies as well as the needs of the economy. It must meet the needs of existing workers as well as those moving into employment for the first time. It should be based on a national skills strategy to deliver a green and digitised future. And parity of esteem with the academic route is the least value that should be ascribed to it.

In this regard, IfATE’s Simpler Skills System report is welcomed. Our next steps should be to develop a national skills strategy, to research how to increase  apprenticeship starts and achievement rates, to benchmark apprenticeship funding systems and improve the levy, and to better connect our national and regional policy making levels.

Greater political recognition of our sector’s value is great and must continue. But rather than waiting on political leadership, we are better finding out what we can learn from Germany’s experience and starting to develop a clear plan for what happens in a new parliament.

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