Semta's Chief Executive Ann Watson shares her views on the latest news, policy, issues and events of interest to the engineering and advanced manufacturing sector. 


Tuesday, 25 July 2017 00:00

Apprentices are happy with their choices - so let's keep the bits of the system they value

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Despite all of the political upheaval this year, with the general election and the Brexit negotiations to contend with, apprenticeships remain a key policy priority of the government and the ambition to create 3 million of them by 2020 remains in place.

I’ve outlined the concerns that engineering employers have previously, but in building a new apprenticeships system it’s even more important that we listen to apprentices themselves. If we don’t make the apprentice experience a good one and we don’t give apprenticeships the status and prestige they deserve, we won’t get enough young people to pursue them.

So it’s in that context that I am delighted to welcome today’s publication of the Industry Apprentice Council’s (IAC) 2017 annual report. It hardly feels like a year since the 2016 report, with its excellent Five Point Plan to improve industry apprenticeships, was launched, but here we are – with a 2017 report which underlines just how much progress is still to be made in key areas like careers advice and perception of apprenticeships.

For the uninitiated, the IAC is a group of apprentices drawn from across engineering and related sectors which Semta supports in a facilitator/secretariat role. We are proud to support the group as it considers the key apprenticeship policy issues of the day, makes recommendations to government and campaigns to make them happen. The annual reports the group publishes have a wide-reaching influence  - the 2016 report was referenced during Parliamentary debates on apprenticeship policy.

As the IAC’s annual reports are underpinned by a wide-reaching survey of apprentices, in which 1,200 took part this year, they are truly reflective of apprentices’ own views and experiences. That’s why, if Ministers, MPs and other decision makers pay heed to just one report on apprenticeships this year (and there will be lots of them published), it should be this one.

The good news is that the vast majority of industry apprentices surveyed (98%) are pleased they chose to take up their apprenticeships. It’s a system that is, right now, working well for those going through it. But the responses throw up much concern that ongoing reforms to the wider apprenticeships system could devalue what we have in engineering while deskilling our sector in the longer term. IAC member John Coombes sums up the wider sentiment of the report when he is quoted as saying:

“Governments have created what must be the world’s best career route for young people – where else would we get 98% of under-25s saying they are happy with their career choice? But more than 90 per cent of apprentices oppose the Government’s removal of mandated qualifications, and there is a lot of unease about the focus on the End Point Assessment as the primary measure of an apprentice’s achievement.”

The thing about engineering apprenticeships is that they tend to last several years and encompass a wide range of skills; it will be nigh-on impossible to stuff all of that learning and experience into one assessment taken at the end of the apprenticeship. Removal of mandatory qualifications is also opposed by respondents – the vast majority of whom are gaining qualifications through their apprenticeships which their employers, and others in engineering, understand and value. Indeed, recent Ofqual research shows that 65% who recruit staff for technical roles demand qualifications from applicants.

The IAC report also underlines the pressing need to reform the careers advice system in order to ensure that all young people are fully informed of their post-school or college options, with little more than a fifth (22%) saying the advice they got was good or very good. The government’s careers strategy is coming soon, and the so-called Baker amendment to the Technical and Further Education Bill is a good start, but we need to go further than that if we are going to ensure that all educational institutions do their bit to promote apprenticeships – and I hope Ministers will reflect on what the IAC report has to say as they draw up that careers strategy.

And that’s because the price of not getting apprenticeships policy right will be paid most keenly not by employers (although they, of course, need a well-regarded and credible apprenticeships system too)  – but by young people themselves. Not all young people want to go into higher education, and not all young people learn best in an academic environment. As IAC member Ryan Carey says:

“School careers advice at the moment is a pipeline for UCAS and applying to university. It doesn’t even have to matter what you study as long as the school knows you’re going to university.”

We are failing those young people who do not want to pursue an academic route if we do not offer them a high-quality, technical, work-based alternative – and this year’s IAC report tells us exactly what apprentices themselves value about the route they have taken. We owe it to future apprenticeship intakes to listen.

To read the 2017 IAC annual report, click here. An infographic of the key findings can be downloaded here.

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