July 2012


  • You're hired
    The government is putting money into apprenticeships, hoping they will appeal to more school leavers and foster a highly skilled workforce to help boost economic recovery. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at why apprenticeships have had an uneven reputation in the past and what schools and colleges can do to improve take-up now. More
  • A roaring success?
    We hear much about how UK school standards are being eclipsed by the educational achievements of South-East Asia in particular but how accurate are the claims? Isabel Nisbet examines what, if anything, the UK can really learn from Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea. More
  • Bright futures
    St Birinus School aims to develop its own leaders by elevating its most promising staff to roles shadowing the senior team. Jim Fuller explains. More
  • A load of hot air?
    Media headlines seem to back the government’s view that GCSE and A level have become easier and therefore are in desperate need of reform. However, evidence from one school indicates that the most significant factor in increased attainment at A level is not grade inflation but students delaying specialisation to three A levels until after the completion of AS. More
  • Taylored solutions
    Bad behaviour and poor attendance at school are as crucial as poverty in determining whether a child achieves academically, which is why the government’s behaviour expert, Charlie Taylor, is determined that both must be tackled. He talks to Lucie Carrington. More
  • What the papers say
    Education media coverage can make depressing reading, but ASCL members do have the power to generate a positive press profile. Nick Bannister reports. More
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The government is putting money into apprenticeships, hoping they will appeal to more school leavers and foster a highly skilled workforce to help boost economic recovery. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at why apprenticeships have had an uneven reputation in the past and what schools and colleges can do to improve take-up now. 

You're hired

Apprenticeships are one of the coalition government’s flagship programmes for further education and skills and they are currently getting a revamp. Last November, Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, announced measures which are intended to attract more young people into the scheme and help employers. They included: 

  • financial incentives of up to £1,500 to businesses taking on apprentices 
  • cutting the red tape previously associated with hiring apprentices 
  • targeting the programme at specific areas for optimum economic impact 
  • a requirement for providers to offer training in literacy and numeracy up to a good GCSE standard

Apprentices will also be entitled to a minimum of 12 months training from this August, leading to some shorter courses being re-classified as pre-apprenticeship training. Meanwhile, the £19 million Higher Apprenticeship Fund will support the training and development of 19,000 new level 4 and 5 trainees in areas such as construction, advanced engineering, insurance and financial services, preparing participants for top technical jobs or the possibility of further study to degree level.

Apprenticeships have faced some challenges in recent years, however, and faced a varied reputation. A report published last year by the London School of Economics described the scheme as “dysfunctional” and said there was a disparity between the reasonable pay being offered by employers to apprentices and the amount of time they were prepared to release them for training – the implication being that employers did not want to release people to attend college when they were paying them to work.

The study also found that apprentices in England are expected to do far less training then their counterparts in other countries – a minimum of 100 hours compared with 900 overseas. It also criticised the government for continuing to split responsibility for apprenticeships between the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), leaving the scheme undermined and without sound leadership.

An Ofsted good practice report earlier this year looked at 15 apprenticeship providers judged to be good or outstanding to pinpoint what made them prosper. It concluded that the success of the government’s revived scheme would depend largely on “the sector’s expertise in designing and delivering high-quality programmes”.

It found that, aside from the technical education that apprentices gained in the course of their training, they also acquired knowledge of employment rights, thinking and learning skills and key or functional skills.

Attitude and commitment

Ofsted also found that academic achievement was not necessarily the most important factor in recruiting apprentices. Most providers were more concerned that the applicant had a good attitude and commitment to work, and this was usually inspired by good quality work experience or taster sessions. However, the fact that local schools all went out on work placements at roughly the same time put pressure on employers and businesses and meant that students did not always find the most suitable place.

The report recommended that schools provide students with a broader range of training and guidance in support of applications, in particular where these were to be completed online. Educational statements with information about students with learning difficulties or other special needs also needed to be flagged up by schools to employers and trainers more clearly, so learners’ needs could be met properly and providers did not have to reassess them from scratch.

Students, meanwhile, found that the advice and careers guidance they received from schools was on the whole “unsatisfactory”, and young people believed they had few options other than to stay on at school or go to college. This is something schools will need to consider as they assume responsibility for careers advice, information and guidance from September.

Dave Linnell, Chief Executive Officer at Cornwall College, which was commended in the report, says it is hard to get messages across about the value and importance of apprenticeships when some of the biggest days in the educational calendar are GCSE and A level results days. “What you are doing is sending out a subliminal message that those qualifications are the right and only road.

“One way we get the word out is to go into schools to talk to young people about apprenticeships and to get them to speak to role-models – people in senior positions who have worked their way up having begun with an apprenticeship.”

Ultimately, it’s about getting young people into work that is rewarding and right for them, says Nicky Jones, Director of Employer Engagement at Barnsley College. “One of our strategic objectives is to put work-based learning at the forefront of what we do and make it employer-driven so the curriculum fits students’ needs.

“At the end of the day work is where everyone is heading, whatever academic or training path young people take to get there.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance educational writer.

Case study

Cornwall College

One of the providers highlighted in Ofsted’s report was Cornwall College, a collaboration of five distinct further and one higher education institutions spread out across the county. Of its total annual budget of £76 million, about £10 million is spent on delivering apprenticeships.

“The Cornish economy is in a reasonable state at the moment and we have businesses working with us that range from an internationally known shipyard to small family firms,” says Dave Linnell, chief executive officer. “They would not do this if they weren’t fairly sure that there are at least medium to long-term prospects for the young people they are recruiting.”

The college’s Newquay campus, which offers mainly higher education programmes, is planning to introduce higher-level apprenticeships, while the rest of the institutions educate and train 1,700 apprentices in a variety of disciplines, ranging from agriculture to catering and construction.

“We offer both further education and apprenticeships because today’s learners want a variety of routes, and to choose the one that is right for them in terms of their needs and aspirations,” Dave says. “The idea is to provide opportunities for individuals, because there is no right or wrong way of achieving your goals.”

He says it is too early to say whether large numbers of 16-19 year olds will be put off university this year by the hike in tuition fees and consider a vocational path instead. “But there is already some evidence that there are a lot of high quality people applying for apprenticeships at the age of 18, rather than at 17,” he adds.

Case study

Barnsley College

Barnsley College in South Yorkshire has 1,200 apprentices doing more than 20 courses ranging from animal care to business and administration, to painting and decorating, to warehouse and storage.

“We have one of the largest choices of apprenticeships anywhere in the country, and some quite specialised courses that only certain accredited colleges and providers have,” says Nicky Jones, the college’s Director of Employer Engagement.

“We work really closely with employers to develop areas where they identify there is need and we use regional and local market intelligence data, which helps us keep track of where the jobs are and which industries need workforce.”

They also speak directly to local businesses. “About 90 per cent of employers in the area are small and medium-sized businesses and sometimes the data has not been analysed in enough detail [to show their needs] so we work closely with them to see whether we can match their requirements.”

For example, they worked with Sheffield Forgemasters, a local engineering company which needed level 4 apprentices. The college developed a course to meet their requirements and now has 40 apprentices working towards that higher level.

“The college places the same importance on vocational learning and apprenticeships as it does on more academic routes. I head up the employer responsiveness unit to make sure we’re giving them [the employers] what they want, and at the same time that the apprentices are getting a high-quality experience.”

The college prides itself on being proactive in raising awareness of apprenticeships among pupils. It has good relationships with schools and holds workshops and taster sessions for young people.

Nicky says: “Employers know we have strong relationships and that we can even help with recruitment and scale down the number of applicants to the three or four they should interview. So they are aware that there is a close working network here. We also collaborate with the local jobcentres over trends in local employment.”

Apprenticeships used to be seen as a career path specifically for the less able, she adds.

“But some of our courses, such as the high level engineering course, are delivered in conjunction with higher education and form part of a foundation degree, so many now see them as an alternative route into higher education. It suits those who want to work from the outset, or who may have been put off traditional routes to university because of the fees issue.”


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