Apprenticeships: the bedrock to our nation’s skill development program. Let us continue that proud tradition│ Wesley Manta
With National Apprenticeship Week approaching (5 – 9 March), and my appreciation for David Cameron’s government increasing day by day, I thought it might be relevant to visit a topic close to my heart. Given the recent discussions on tuition fees and whether Bachelors degrees are worth their increasing costs, it might serve us well to keep alternative streams of education in mind. Apprenticeships have served us well for hundreds of years and may be the key to solving some of our education challenges.
Being traced back as far as the 12th century, apprenticeships were used as a way of educating and training the next generation of workers, both rich and poor. Apprentices would be provided with food, lodging, and training, while the employer would have access to an inexpensive source of labour. This form of education continued in for hundreds of years, with the government even introducing a formal structure for apprenticeships in 1561. Apprenticeships continued to be used by employers, occasionally being reformed by government. Fast-forward to the 1970s, and apprenticeships began to fall out of favour with the public, with numbers starting an apprenticeship halving from 1979 to 1995. The scheme was seen to be out of date and had not kept up with the technological changes to our economy. The scheme was in desperate need of reforming, and in 1995, we saw the introduction of the new “Modern Apprenticeships”. This was the biggest reform for apprenticeships ever seen, with government taking a concentrated look at the issue. Through the introduction of the new scheme, along with reviews on apprenticeship, and new legislation, apprenticeships began to rise in popularity once again.
In 2010, when David Cameron became Prime Minister, one of the first policy areas the government focused on was the competitiveness of our workforce. Realising that not only was the population was less productive than our European counterparts, but that if we wanted to compete in the global economy, we would need a skilled workforce. As described in the Skills for Sustainable Growth document, apprenticeships were the heart to the government’s response on this issue. Building on the modernisation started in the 2000s, the government introduced standards for all apprenticeships, restructured how apprenticeships were governed, introduced new legislation to support the modernisation, and launched the Richard Review of Apprenticeships. Through this focus on preparing our nation for the future, we saw the number of people starting apprenticeships increase 63% in 2010/2011, from the year before. This was a monumental change, seeing investment and change not seen since the introduction of the modern apprenticeships in 1995.
I look to the future, and question whether apprenticeships can help us with the issues that we face today. In 2015, the government introduced degree apprenticeships. They allow students to gain an honours degree, while receiving crucial experience in the workplace, and above all, earning a wage. The degree is no different from those offered by universities, and more universities sign up every year. These include universities in the Russell Group. Through this scheme, we see employers investing in their workforce, by not only paying for the degree in part, but also in loss of productivity, as an apprentice would normally spend 1 or 2 days per week in university. Once again, we see the symbiotic relationship between employers and students.
For Conservatives, it shows two key philosophical wins that come from the successful implementation of this scheme. First, it shows that the market can help bear the cost for educating our workforce, reducing the pressure on the government, as well as the students completing the apprenticeships. We always talk about the market stepping in and helping provide for our community, yet we shy away from allowing the market to pay their share in investing in our skilled workforce. Truly, if we believe that the market will provide, then we must give it the chance. Organisations have continuously complained about university degrees, as they are rarely involved in the critical conversations on the structure and development of those degrees. With the degree apprenticeships, organisations were given a bigger seat at the table, and as such, provided more advise on what employers need and how that should be balanced against the student’s academic development.
Secondly, in line with traditionalist thinking, it also shows that the past might hold more solutions to our current challenges than many want to admit. Throughout history, governments and organisations have had to wrestle with the issue of educating the next generation, wondering how to ensure that they have the skills that they need to succeed in the future. Though we face many new challenges, we should not allow the shouts for constant change to continue unchallenged. Embracing apprenticeships shows the Conservatives as not only as problem-solvers, but as a guardians of conservative thinking.
Looking forward, I hope the current government continues the investment and focus on skills that we saw throughout David Cameron’s premiership. I was honoured to attend the opening event for the Institute of Apprenticeships, the public body responsible for the continued improvement of apprenticeship standards. Their job involves ensuring that everyone can take full advantage of the scheme. I hope that they continue to ensure that our apprenticeships are training our workforce to be competitive in this global world.
I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that apprenticeships will solve all our skills development issues but ask that it is considered more when discussing the HE requirements. It has served our country, and many others, well for centuries, and I believe it will continue to do so.