National Apprenticeship Week rightly celebrates tens of thousands of individual successes from young beginners to older workers acquiring new skills — and of the trainers and employers who inspire them.

I’m proud the last Labour government set up the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and introduced National Apprenticeship Week in 2008, alongside pushing the programme from 65,000 apprenticeships in 1996/7 to 279,700 by 2009/10.

Infrastructure projects begun by Labour such as Crossrail have been a crucial conduit for apprenticeship expansion.

The young apprentices who stood round the Queen as she opened the Elizabeth Line are its legacy.

Now ministers have set themselves the ambitious target of 3m apprenticeship starts by 2020 with a proposed apprenticeship levy, delivery board, and Institute for Apprenticeships as levers. I and the

Labour Party applaud the principle of expansion — but we need to take stock of potential devils in the detail.

To meet those targets with quality apprenticeships, we need to scale up traditional areas in manufacturing and industry, but also grasp the potential for high-quality apprenticeships in the service sector — to meet growing demands in social care, leisure and visitor services — as well as digital and creative industries.

That expansion could fuel some of the cohorts needed to fill the gaps in technical and professional staff, so long bemoaned by Lord Sainsbury and others.

We must also keep a wary eye on apprenticeship completions — down from 76.4 per cent in 2010/11 to 68.9 per cent in 2013/14 — so expansion is not undermined by unacceptable drop-out rates. Apprenticeships for high-tech companies are crucial.

I have argued we need to encourage such employers to ‘overtrain’ their apprenticeship numbers with the surplus available to energise their supply chains and other small and medium sized businesses.

I have argued we need to encourage such employers to ‘overtrain’ their apprenticeship numbers with the surplus available to energise their supply chains and other small and medium sized businesses.

Government utilises traineeships to get far more young people competitive for high quality apprenticeships.

The mechanisms for doing this are shrivelling because of cuts in funding to FE colleges and providers, and in their own capacity to drive initiatives forward.

With staffing levels at the Skills Funding Agency down nearly 50 per cent since 2011 and similar levels of reduction in the NAS, and ministers cutting off UKCES funding, they will struggle to deliver their grand designs.

It makes sense to look to the opportunities from devolution to both LEPS and combined authorities for apprenticeship expansion.

In the pamphlet for the Smith Institute, we demonstrated how local authorities were already taking on apprentices and backing local initiatives. If more power was devolved, this could be done on a far larger scale.

The Government also needs to mobilise public sector apprenticeships, using contract procurements to lever more and match the programme we proposed in the last parliament.

These roadmaps for apprenticeships are ones that everyone needs to feel included.

But across business there are already concerns how the proposed levy will operate.

Will the money raised be additional or a substitute for existing Government funding?

Will a ‘big bang’ approach and a hasty introduction jeopardise its credibility?

The Apprenticeship Delivery Board charged with meeting the 3m target is narrowly drawn, with only one woman among the six members.

That’s why I have argued forcefully the Board of the Institute for Apprenticeships intended to be a long-term standing body should include not only employers, who are central to the process but also further education providers and colleges , relevant trade union expertise, university and local authority expertise.

Matching Apprenticeships to the flexibility and economic demands of 21st century Britain demands that inclusive approach.


Gordon Marsden is Shadow Skills Minister

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  1. Headlines and ambitious targets, even encouraging employers to ‘overtrain’ their apprenticeship numbers are all very well, but what about encouraging some quality in the provision to ensure that the learner or employer know what they are signing up to. If they are lucky they will benefit enormously if they are not, they will waste a couple of years that they never get back.
    Whilst there are hundreds of Learning Providers, delivering high quality apprenticeships, there are just as many organisations that are nowhere near the standard of provision expected in this day and age, Especially so if the providers idea of teaching and assessment’ is based on methods spawned in the 90’s, taught to simply pass tests and matched to a curriculum timetable rather than that of the workplace.
    The quality of apprenticeship on offer to the individual, regardless of it by a college, an independent provider or an employer may be as different as chalk and cheese and from my experience has little or nothing to do with funding cuts or demographics. Far more likely to be leaderships lack of understanding for work based learning or the efficiency and quality improvement available, by simply using every day learning technology. Like the real world does. On reflection, more than a decade of ‘encouragement’ has failed to move them so far.
    If ‘the apprenticeship board’ or whoever is going to ‘keep a wary eye on apprenticeship completions’ they might start by asking the apprentice why they ‘dropped out, rather than ask management. Perhaps they or their employer discovered that the experience wasn’t fit for purpose after all.
    How were they to know?