Iain Wright: Apprenticeships must be a priority
This week is National Apprenticeship week. Hartlepool and the North East know all about the value of apprenticeships. It is a large part of the cultural, social and economic history of our area. That is because manufacturing and the great industrial firms in Hartlepool and the wider North East developed valuable skills and training.
In the 1980s much of that was lost, partly because of the accelerated deindustrialisation under the Thatcher Government, but also because there was a growing belief that apprenticeships were somehow archaic and not needed in the modern era.
That attitude has begun to change in recent years, partly because of an increase in the number of apprenticeships, beginning at the end of the 20th Century.
In 1997, when Labour came to office, the number of apprenticeships stood at only 65,000 starts a year across the entire country. By 2010, that figure had risen to over 240,000. I do still worry however, that we value academic success much more than technical or vocational education- that a university education is considered somehow superior to an apprenticeship.
I was therefore encouraged when the Government’s 2015 Queen’s Speech, which feels like a very long time ago now, with all that has happened since, highlighted apprenticeships as a big part of the government’s plan, and pledged that there would be three million more starts by 2020. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee I chair in Parliament then examined the pledge and the Government’s wider apprenticeships policy in a report which was published this January.
Frankly, I don’t think there is any hope whatsoever of achieving that target by 2020. In a matter of weeks, the Government’s “apprenticeship levy”, under which employers with a payroll of more than £3 million will be required to pay 0.5 per cent to fund apprenticeships, will become a reality. However, the implementation process has been somewhat botched, with Ministers often giving the impression that they were simply making up policy as they went along. Very little detail was given to colleges and employers until the last possible moment when, of course, they need time to put their own structures and processes into place.
I am also very concerned that this could end up becoming a crude numbers game with the government doing anything - whether it’s rebranding, disregarding equality, etc. - as a means to reach the target. I often hear people criticise what is seen as an apprenticeship these days- back in my day it was a three-year course with a real job at the end of it, they say. I agree that the quality of the apprenticeship name and brand should be protected and the temptation to water it down resisted- but I suspect it will not be.
Apprenticeships have a massive, positive role to play and on that basis it should be a big priority for Government. I feel that for this Government, despite the rhetoric, it is not. It could be the real difference between economic growth and failure, social mobility and social inertia. Making this is a priority in our business and skills policy would go a good way towards trying to solve some of the challenges that our economy faces.