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Letters: Why apprenticeships need a rethink

I could not agree more with Polly Toynbee (Our young are being failed by these empty schemes, 10 February). Having attended several events associated with apprenticeship week, I came away only with a sense of disbelief, despair and even embarrassment at the British apprenticeship. The reality is only too apparent in the construction industry. Since 2007, the number of first year construction trainees reported to Construction Skills has fallen by 50%, more in trades such as bricklaying, where the figure is 67%. This number represents just over 1% of the workforce, compared to at least 5% in the northern European countries. Only just over half are following an apprenticeship programme; the rest are trying to learn about a particular occupation in college, though without work experience their chances of entering the labour market are much reduced.

What is needed is a comprehensive scheme of vocational education and training, integrating college, workshop and work-based elements, negotiated and agreed on by employers, trade unions and educationalists, and backed up by government regulation. Instead we have “flexibility”, which seems, at worst, to mean a £2.60-per-hour and 12-week apprenticeship, and “tailoring”, which means imparting skills for the immediate job in hand and of no necessary lasting value for the future. Isn’t it time Britain joined Europe in qualifying young people in broad-based occupations, with a definite social status and wage to give them the confidence they deserve?
Linda Clarke
Professor of European industrial relations, Westminster Business School

• I was disappointed to read Polly Toynbee’s article on apprenticeships – it ignores some fundamental facts. This month the National Audit Office said that for every £1 of taxpayers’ money apprenticeships generate £18 for the wider economy – undeniably boosting economic growth, and providing new life chances for young and older learners alike. The average apprenticeship lasts more than 12 months and entails a rigorous period of job-relevant training. We have tightened guidance for those developing apprenticeships – those training providers that do not meet the high standards learners deserve are having their funding withdrawn.

This is irrefutable evidence that the government’s unprecedented investment, backed by tough new measures to ensure that quality matches quantity, is helping make apprenticeships the gold standard in vocational training.
John Hayes MP
Minister for further education, skills and lifelong learning

• Polly Toynbee is right that apprenticeships have been devalued by companies using public funds to rebadge their in-house training programmes or providers taking young people on to a scheme with little chance of employment at the end of it. These distortions are diminishing the work done by the many traditional apprenticeship providers, such as Seta, where young trainees have very good prospects of being employed. The race to meet politically inspired top-down targets and endless changes in regulations and requirements are threatening to undermine a respected training programme that serves both employers, young people, and by extension, the country.

Latching on to apprenticeships as an easy soundbite to reduce youth unemployment does a disservice to those schemes that have been making a difference for young people for many years.
Richard Heighington
Chief executive, Seta

• Polly Toynbee writes that “the new apprenticeships … are almost a lie”. I have the indentures signed by my great-grandfather when my grandfather joined the merchant navy as an apprentice: he ended up as a master mariner. My late father-in-law joined the RAF as an apprentice, and, having been commissioned from the ranks, came out a squadron leader. A good friend left school at 16, became an apprentice electrician, and retired as a director of a major electrical construction company. Toynbee is right in saying that successive governments have “devalued” and “trashed” the word. Is it too late to restore respect to apprenticeships?
R Anderson
Nantwich, Cheshire

• Polly Toynbee completely ignores the value of high-quality apprenticeships and the benefits they bring to people, employers, and to the British economy as a whole. 

A City & Guilds report released last week predicts UK businesses would be boosted by £459m per annum by creating an additional million apprenticeship places and more apprenticeships would also generate £1.2bn in tax revenues between 2012-20. 

Everyone benefits, as long as the apprenticeship programmes being provided are of the highest standard.

High-quality apprenticeships – such as those offered by City & Guilds – guarantee that learners are not only competent to the required level, but have also received sufficient practical experience applying this knowledge and honing their skills in the workplace. That is why at City & Guilds we are constantly working with employers to redefine, re-engineer and upgrade existing training modules in order to deliver apprenticeship programmes that actively meet business needs while upskilling people. This is imperative to driving the business growth our economy needs.

However apprenticeships shouldn’t be touted as the only solution to youth unemployment; they are just one of a range of programmes that can help. The government should actively promote a range of solutions, coupled with sufficient careers advice, so young people can make informed decisions about their futures and choose the path to employability that’s right for them.

In addition, we must look to other causes of youth unemployment, such as the high proportion of jobseekers that lack the necessary literacy and numeracy skills employers need. The education system must be addressed as a priority from as young as primary age, so the next generation do not get caught in the same predicament as their predecessors.
Chris Jones
CEO and director general, City & Guilds

• Polly Toynbee is quite wrong to say that most modern apprenticeships are not fit for purpose. Their purpose is clearly to funnel taxpayers’ money to private companies, and they achieve this very effectively.
Dr Bob Banks
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