Let’s value technical education

The CBI welcomes the Richard Review on apprenticeships, says Neil Carberry. But any shift  to a new system will have to be carefully managed so that it does not undermine existing provision and opportunities

One of the constant cries from the FE sector is that it is too often forgotten by ministers who invest political capital in primary and secondary education at the expense of skills; and that when they do engage, it often brings sudden, wild shifts in policy.

Yet apprenticeships are the most stable, historic and successful forms of education that we have.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, they were developed by the ancient guilds as a contract between master craftsmen and workers, who would get formal training, food and lodging, in exchange for their labour.

Most apprentices would then become master craftsmen themselves and would train the next generation.

Yet as Doug Richard sets out in his review, this simple structure has become far too complex, with rules and regulations that fail to meet the needs of either learners or businesses.

He is absolutely right when he says that there is “universal agreement that apprenticeships are a good thing”. He is also right when he says that true apprenticeships must be employer-led and meet tough industry standards.

There are many excellent schemes that are many times oversubscribed, as with the outstanding, long-established courses at Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and BT. These provide exactly the sort of high-level skills and hard workplace experience that drive growth.

But apprenticeships must be about the wider economy too — higher skills in retail or logistics are just as important.

The development of a higher apprenticeship programme for accountancy over the past couple of years, for instance, highlights this potential and offers a great route to a professional career.

But we should be honest that this is far from being universally the case. So we welcome Richard’s stark challenge for government:  to urgently overhaul the system so that it properly values technical education.

The world’s economy is changing and apprenticeships need to keep pace. As the economy rebalances towards high-value exports and a more flexible, mobile labour market, our training system must shift to meet these needs.

But shifting to a new system will have to be carefully managed so that it does not undermine existing provision and opportunities.

And we would caution against dismissing the value of shorter courses, based on teaching level 2 skills — these can be rigorous and really meet employers’ needs.

The road to apprenticeships does not simply start at 16”

Overall businesses will welcome the central thrust of Richard’s recommendations.

First, it puts employers in the driving seat. They must have a greater say in both course design and targeting funding at training that matches their needs and future job opportunities.

Second, layers of red tape and confusing funding streams need to be swept away. They put off many firms taking on apprentices — particularly small and medium-sized businesses.

And third, the proposed skills tax credit to take on apprentices could finally make the employer, not government, the decision-maker in apprenticeship design.

But a broader point needs to be made. The road to apprenticeships does not simply start at 16 — the aptitudes and attitudes must be inbuilt from much earlier.

That’s why the CBI is calling for a radical overall from nursery onwards. We want clear routes into technical education at an earlier age and a shift away from public exams at 16.

And we want tougher, new vocational A levels at 18 and for all students to study English and maths throughout school and college.

This is a key moment for government and businesses to step up to the plate — and we are ready to play our part.

Neil Carberry is education and skills director at the Confederation of British Industry

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