Britain has a long history of apprenticeships stretching back to the Middle Ages. From bakers to barbers, long-bow makers to legal text writers, the basic premise was that Guilds oversaw the process of apprentices gaining skills in exchange for continuing their labour for an agreed period after becoming skilled.
That basic approach still holds true today. Each year, apprenticeships are begun by around 80,000 young people aged 16 to 18 in a range of occupations - from social care to chemicals, financial services to fashion.
As well as furthering academic skills, apprenticeships boost collaboration, creative thinking, practical work and help young people develop an ability to cope with change. Research conducted in 2009 has found that more than 90% of those who complete their apprenticeships remain in employment or education, and more than 90% believe their training has left them more confident and with better social skills.
Similarly, employer focus groups have uncovered widespread support for apprenticeships, highlighting the effectiveness of on-the-job training and key benefits of the retention of apprentices. The recently elected coalition government too has encouraged the agenda, announcing £150m to fund 50,000 new apprenticeship places in its May 2010 efficiency and growth investment package.
Unfortunately, however, perceptions that apprenticeships are ‘blue-collar' roles of lower status than college-based learning are slow to change.
The Apprenticeship Pathfinder has been a two year programme looking at actions that can be taken by local authorities and others to expand and promote apprenticeships among young people. Pilots have been held in Hertfordshire, Manchester and South Tyneside, sponsored by the Young Foundation and the London School of Economics, Local Government Improvement and Development and the National Apprenticeship Service.
The two Opening Doors reports of the Pathfinder Programme focus on ways to expand access to Apprenticeships for disadvantaged young people. Their barriers to entry range from the simple lack of awareness of opportunities, through to a lack of the required qualifications for entry and/or the possession of a criminal record.
Such problems are not easily overcome, but the Pathfinders and others have shown promising ways of releasing potential through apprenticeships:
• Schools providing young people with an opportunity to learn about the reality of being an apprentice from a peer, building on the experiences of Future First which has set up ‘alumni networks' for state schools to highlight what past pupils have achieved;
• South Tyneside council has undertaken wide discussions with businesses in its area, highlighting the benefits of apprenticeships and supporting companies in developing responsive recruitment and selection processes;
• Lincolnshire has developed a Care Leavers Apprenticeship Scheme that offers work experience to young care leavers, supporting a cadre of young professionals in fulfilling the potential of those still in care.
These are changeable times for apprenticeship policy. But in an era where the role of practical skills is increasingly being rediscovered, it is essential that the opportunities highlighted by Opening Doors are kept in mind and brought about.