Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw reminds government that apprenticeships need to be worth the effort

City A.M.
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An apprentice at work at a Cammell Laird shipyard (Source: Getty)

Politicians love apprenticeships. The current government is committed to delivering three million of them in the next five years and ministers’ speeches on the topic tend to have a ring of Stalin’s tractor production statistics.

It’s easy to see why politicians are attracted to the lever marked ‘apprenticeships’.

With hundreds of thousands of school leavers each year opting not to stick around for A-levels, let alone go on to university, it’s a policy area aimed at giving direction to young people who may not otherwise have any.

Many apprenticeships are high-skilled and demanding. Some, particularly in engineering, can last years and are a genuine alternative to university education.

Others, such as those available across the City, often prove to be the first step in a long career and combine practical experience with academic qualifications.

However, we would be deluding ourselves if we maintained that all apprenticeships are rigorous, valuable and worthwhile.

Businesses often complain that firms in charge of organising and accrediting apprenticeships have no real interest in or understanding of the roles they’re helping to fill, and some firms say that the bureaucracy within the system puts them off the process.

Now, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has waded in and looks set to rain on the government’s apprenticeship parade.

Sir Michael warns that a push to boost the numbers has in fact devalued the whole apprenticeship idea.

Should we be surprised? You don’t need a PwC apprenticeship under your belt to know that the more there is of something, the less it’s likely to be worth.

Ofsted singles out training schemes in coffee-making and retail as examples where apprentices get little out of the experience. As for the employer, they get a staff member for £3.30 an hour.

Ofsted is unveiling a report on the quality of apprenticeships, ahead of which Sir Michael warns that being an apprentice should equate with training and advancement, and that they cannot simply be a qualification “for performing a job that workers can already do”.

The political love affair with the apprenticeship is unlikely to end, so let us hope that Sir Michael’s warnings don’t fall on deaf ears. It’s time to move the focus away from quantity and towards quality.

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