WorldSkills has been and gone, all the hype, the advertising, the supplements, the drum banging… and now the silence is deafening.

Colleges try to whip up support from the media, but it’s short lived, the energy dissipates like the steam from the industry-standard hair straighteners once used to style a winner.

The skills circus has left town, and in its wake Agitator is wondering if anything will change. Vocational qualifications are as low down the education ‘food chain’ as they’ve ever been.

Whose fault is that? The AoC blames teachers and careers advisors and, to add insult to injury we’re losing Connexions, just as they were getting the hang of Diplomas, VRQs and the like.

Lecturers blame parents for not understanding anything but the golden standard of the hallowed A-level.

Colleges blame the plethora of qualifications, programmes and courses on offer, the confusing titles and cacophony of exam boards touting their ‘tickets’. We need constant flag bearers for vocational education.

The Prime Minister was extoling the virtues of apprenticeships at the Tory Conference last week. But he’s not credible when talking up skills. He’s not ‘been there nor done that’ like our own valuable lecturers.

Sure, we’ve been listening to all sorts of leading politicians waving the flag for apprenticeships; they’ve even employed a few to accompany them as they saunter up and down the corridors of power. But it feels too orchestrated, a falsehood that is seen as a crowd pleaser.

The pile ‘em high and sell em cheap attitude to vocational qualifications must stop now.”

To paraphrase the political messages; apprenticeships will save the economy – apprenticeships are the answer… But, how can that be when corporate giants like Asda admit that none of the 25,000 apprenticeships that they’ve been crowing about equate to any new jobs?

Vocational education will only enjoy an elevated position when we get the quality right. Too many organisations are taking short cuts. How can we be delivering Level 2 NVQs in two days and apprenticeships in just six weeks and expect Joe Public to take vocational qualifications seriously?

How can two thirds of apprenticeships delivered in the UK be in retail (which wasn’t even a category at WorldSkills) and expect people up and down the country to think they are competition to A-levels?

The Mail on Sunday last week told its middle England readers how you can follow an apprenticeship that includes removing litter, dog fouling and emptying waste bins.  I’d say it was a joke, but it’s not even funny.

We have got ourselves into a real mess with vocational education, it’s one true standard was the apprenticeship, but we’ve gone an messed that up too by flooding the market with cheap imitations and confusing the punter.

If Rolex or Hermes made apprenticeships they’d have customs officers raiding the SFA (Skills Funding Agency) faster than you can say ‘counterfeit’. And there lies the problem. The one brand that bolstered vocational qualifications has been soiled, and we as a sector have helped publicise its dilution.

How? By every single press release, web site and prospectus put out for ‘Joe Public’ to read headlines like “provider puts 200 students through their Call Centre qualification in record time” or, “Level 1 student is awarded certificate in pouring glass of milk.”

The pile ‘em high and sell em cheap attitude to vocational qualifications must stop now.

We need to bang the quality drum again and again and again, we need to encourage the self-fulfilling prophecy: if you tell people often enough then they will believe it. But, only if it’s actually true.

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  1. It’s harsh Agitator, but true. Vocational education isn’t sexy, or perhaps that’s our fault… perhaps we’ve just made it that way. perhaps we’ve only made them sexy to employers and lecturers? Speaking in our own FE dialect?

    If we can’t truly sell these stories to journalists, what hope do have selling to teachers, parents and students?

  2. I agree in the main with the comments made here, but and its a big but we must shout about the great things we have seen and see on a daily basis across apprenticeships as these are the stories that need telling. In the retail automotive sector we are seeing some excellent stories of apprentices achieving good quality qualifications which are also endorsed by manufacturers own quality programmes. Come on lets get some great cases studies out there in the media and paint a much better picture.

  3. Scott Upton

    One of the main issues has to be the breadth of Apprenticeships on offer, or rather the lack of it. I’d bet that 90% of apprentices are on a dozen frameworks, but there are 200 available. We must push out the boundaries and offer more breadth. I’ve decided not to chase numbers with ‘dodgy’ providers but instead to open up 5 completely new sectors for us – most of them in ‘sexy’ jobs.

  4. John Jones

    It is unfortunate that the brand (for that is what it officially is) ‘Apprenticeship’ has been applied to the package of training now offered in the workplace. It immediately takes one back to the halcyon days of craftspeople taking 3-5 years to complete their training and this was seen as the only way to train ‘properly’. It was also the time of black telephones, 3d. red callboxes and letters that took three days to arrive.
    The world we live in is different now. The computer, email, mobile phones and new and innovative teaching methods mean that training does not take as long now. Funding limits also dictate faster outcomes as we need to be paid to stay in business. There is still no argument that turning a drive shaft to within 1/100mm is a different skill to saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to a customer and may take more time to learn, but both of these skills are equally valid. In the service-led economy that we have become, skills in retail and customer service are important and equally as valid as those in engineering or production. We all know how appalling the service in some shops can be and this won’t change unaided, for if it would, the change would have already occured.
    What is wrong is the attitude that, as customer service or retail skills (as examples of vocational areas that are seen as ‘tarnishing the brand’) are seen as more easily delivered quickly (fast tracked) then they should be. Learners need time to change their attitudes towards customers at work and this takes time too – maybe as long as turning that drive shaft to the given tolerences. Ity does not help the situation when the Government pays back its benefactors with £8M handouts to train their staff for free when Joe Bloggs and Susie Stretton in their SME engineering firms have to pay for their Apprenticeship training.
    SASE was welcomed as setting a number of minimum standards which must be attained to save the Apprenticeship brand, but it appears some providers can still hot house learners. It must be stopped now in all sectors, otherwise the already tarnished brand will lose all credibility with the public…and hence the politicians.

  5. Million pound profit making companies all appear to get government funding, where as SME’s who struggle to make ends meet are stuck paying the training bill. Without help many SME’s can’t afford to take on Apprentices, as they have to pay half towards funding their training. Quality Training Costs both industry and the individual.