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Apprenticeships: the ‘gold standard option’

13 February 2012

National Apprenticeship Week (February 6-10) brought some welcome news for businesses and training providers who were invited to bid for a share of £6m from the Higher Apprenticeship Fund, intended to support the development of thousands of new Higher Apprenticeships in key sectors, including aerospace, energy and renewables.

The Prime Minister took to the stage during the Week to open bidding for the new 'Employer Ownership' pilot, inviting employers in England to apply to access up to £250m of public investment and get a greater say over how skills training is designed and delivered. Meanwhile, small firms are to be offered a lump sum of £1,500 as an incentive to take on their first young apprentices.

Mr Cameron said he wants apprenticeships to become a “gold standard option” for young people – driving home the message that technical excellence should be as highly valued as academic prowess.

The Employer Ownership pilot is particularly important. In a recent article I reported on the Department for Education’s decision to axe a huge chunk off the vocational courses list for 14- to 16 year olds. In some ways, the pilot would appear to restore a balance to the vocational training system, offering real ownership of vocational training to the employers, rather than the educators, and by so doing, equipping businesses with the skills they actually need.

The Forum of Private Business wants the government to simplify the entire apprenticeship system in order to make it more business-friendly and appealing to industry leaders. The Forum’s Jane Bennett said members valued on-the-job training - a claim supported by its own research - but she thinks the government could boost its appeal by making it much more business-friendly.

“The problem is that the majority of courses are not flexible, which is essential for small firms," she says. "There is also a lack of information available to small businesses about course benefits and therefore they find it difficult to navigate a complex system made up of numerous courses."

The Forum would also like to see small firms who recruit apprentices to be given financial help to cover training costs and at least some of the wages. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills research suggests companies see payback after three years, which the Forum believes is too long for small firms. "While we welcome apprenticeship subsidies for those that go through the NAS, we feel they should be extended to those who carry out in-house training, either through tax or subsidies,” says Ms Bennett.

On the whole, the government's campaign to reinvigorate apprenticeship schemes across the economy is to be commended. Data released on January 31 indicated record growth in apprenticeship starts, with some 457,200 clocked up in the full 2010/11 academic year, representing a 63.5 per cent increase on the previous year’s figures. Growth was reported to have taken place at all levels of learning, for all age groups, and across all sectors and all regions.

According to the National Audit Office, every £1 of public investment in apprenticeships delivers a return of £18 to the wider economy. Quite how the statisticians arrived at that ratio is beyond me, but if it is anywhere close to the truth then we should not only welcome the new round of government funding but also ensure that the investment so far pledged is put to good use.

Les Hunt

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