Of value to all

MargaretProsser2014.jpgMargaret Prosser on the need for better monitoring of the quality of apprenticeships on offer to young people

In his recent budget speech George Osborne, to the surprise of many of us, announced he was introducing a new Living Wage. His reasons for doing so, I believe, were twofold. First, to try to wrong foot the Opposition – with the generous Chancellor appearing as the workers’ friend. Second, because he realises that the country will not recover its economic strength until wages rise and the welfare bill goes down. Tax payers subsidising stingy employers is not a practise that can last for ever.

One way to increase people’s earning power is to provide them with marketable skills and so the government’s announcement of three million apprenticeships by the year 2020 is one I welcome. But there are many questions that need answering about quality, access, monitoring and funding.

Legal protection of the term ‘apprentice’ is proposed but many employers who currently receive funding for very basic training schemes will need telling that circumstances have changed. Claiming under the government’s apprenticeship scheme for training which does not meet the new criteria will become a criminal offence. Monitoring the activities of companies, big or small, will be no mean task and structures will need putting in place to ensure this happens.

The government has consulted employers on the introduction of a training levy. There have been objections raised by some sectors but it is disingenuous of employers to complain about the difficulty in recruiting skilled labour and then take no responsibility for changing the situation. We will look for determination from the government to make this work and see that as a measure of their commitment to the future workforce.

Before we get to the role of employers however, we need to take a long hard look at what is or isn’t happening in schools. There is a major disincentive for them to encourage their pupils to take up apprenticeships, because Whitehall’s funding regime pays according to the number of pupils in the Sixth Form and schools are graded according to the numbers of pupils achieving good GCSE’s and A levels. It is not therefore in their interests to encourage young people to go off into the world of vocational training or move to an FE College, which for some may be the most suitable route. Once these young people are lost from formal learning, it is much more difficult to get them back into the skills opportunities arena.

The conflict of interest faced by schools, coupled with the poor and unwise decision of the previous Education Secretary Michael Gove to devolve careers advice to them, has left the system in disarray. There is no strategy nor any system to measure common standards. FE Colleges are concerned that funding levels are inadequate to deal with the task at hand and the spending review has done nothing to allay those fears. Unlike schools and academies, and indeed free schools, FE Colleges have to pay VAT on goods and services – making for a very uneven playing field.

But there are some very good examples of apprenticeship availability by some of the major companies or organisations. New apprenticeships for management training are welcome. A lot of what goes wrong in a workplace can be traced to inadequate or poor management.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has established arrangements within local communities and with their supply chain, in order to ensure continuity of supply of highly skilled and safety aware workers. Companies within the system receive funding support and many hundreds of apprenticeships at all levels have been set up over the last few years.

We also need more women in non-traditional areas of training and we need to stop denigrating apprenticeships in hairdressing and beauty therapy. These trained workers, mostly women, perform the necessary tasks which we all need and enjoy. And as with other workers, we need to ensure they receive better rewards in their pay packets - a priority that will not be shared by Mr Osborne, however much he wants to dress himself up as the workers' friend.

Baroness Margaret Prosser is a Labour Peer in the House of Lords

Published 15th October 2015

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