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Apprentice Hayes Twiddles the Dials on the Skills Machine

Authors: The Work Foundation Stephen Overell

17 November 2010

Apprenticeship is the right way to go. The idea of an apprenticeship commands wide respect among businesses and the public. People get them - unlike the jargon-riddled chaos of so much of the vocational skills system. And there aren’t enough of them. England (skills is a devolved matter) boasts just 11 apprentices per 1000 workers - compared with 40 in Germany, 39 in Australia, 33 in Austria and 17 in France.

So aiming to increase numbers - 75,000 on top of the current 300,000 – and making Level 3 the target for them (A level equivalent) is to be welcomed. Generally at present apprenticeships are pitched at a lower level.

Apprenticeship is the eye-catching centrepiece of the new Skills Strategy launched this week by Vince Cable and John Hayes, the skills minister. The rest is a wide-ranging and distinctively Coalition-esque package. Many targets – including the Leitch skills targets - get the chop. But there are to be Lifelong Learning Accounts. A promise to create stability in the skills and training system – with some immense institutional changes in the pipeline in order to create said stability. Full funding for a first qualification – but a loans system for intermediate and higher level skills loosely comparable with student loans (and pretty likely to put plenty off doing vocational courses too).

And, of course, amid all the talk of nothing being more important than skills, the strategy has been put together against the background of further education cuts of 25% by 2014-15.

Like all such documents there is the usual stuff about skills being a shared responsibility between government, learners and business. This one feels very supportive of business but asks relatively little of it. 'Employers do not want low cost approaches that deliver second-class results,' it notes. True. But UK businesses have a relatively poor record of investment in skills: average levels of job-related training have been declining through the 2000s.

There is a notable emphasis on license-to-practice reform. 'In some sectors of the economy employers favour new professional standards, including occupational licensing and training levies.' That is potentially good news for job quality: the absence of any recognised qualifications or credentials in many different kinds of trades (motor mechanics, say) has been blamed for perpetuating the UK’s low-skill, low-pay, zero-career work culture.

Overall, then, a judicious mixture of the very sensible and the very bold.