STEM Foundation

Apprenticeships need to be more consistent, for the sake of the economy as well as young people

Viewpoint: MMU magazine

Apprenticeships need to be more consistent, for the sake of the economy as well as young people, writes Professor Sa'ad Medhat

The fact that the UK needs more apprentices is a universal truth frequently trotted out by politicians and industrialists. The Government has even set the ambitious target of creating 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020. This is something that will be difficult to achieve on our current trajectory:  there have only been an estimated 30,000 higher level apprenticeships in the UK over past two years.

Even before they focus on numbers, politicians, colleges and employers need to take another vital factor into account: the quality of the training, and the breadth of experience on offer with each placement.

Across the country, apprenticeships are wildly inconsistent. Whilst some are admittedly excellent, leading to well paid jobs and the opportunity for further study, others are set at a low level and do little to enhance employment prospects. Indeed, the Sutton Trust’s recent report: Levels of Success: The Potential of UK Apprenticeships, estimates that 60% of apprenticeships in this country are set only to GCSE standard, offering little value beyond traditional work experience placements.

This is an entrenched problem within the apprenticeship system. It not only devalues an important route for capturing and nurturing young talent, but is also damaging the capacity of our national workforce to innovate and add value to the economy.

A shake up is urgently needed, and I would argue that Government, educational providers and industry should be working towards nationally agreed criteria for apprenticeships. This is essential for rebuilding trust between all parties: employers need to feel confident that their investment in young people is worthwhile, and trainees need to feel reassured that their vocational path will bring them rewarding career possibilities.

With this in mind, NEF has been collaborating with leading STEM companies and further education colleges to develop the Apprentice Assured standard. Currently being piloted this year, Apprentice Assured is the first standard in the UK to provide independent validation of the quality of an apprenticeship scheme, rigorously assuring the value it brings both to the employer, the sector and the trainee.

Apprentice Assured uses a unique six-section accreditation framework that helps employers and educational providers align their training provision, clarifying areas of responsibility and ensuring that the apprentice experience is of consistently high quality.

Training programmes that achieve the Apprentice Assured accreditation will meet several essential criteria, including that apprentices:

  • are able to develop a broad understanding of their organisation, the wider sector in which they operate, and how their competencies fit within it
  • feel empowered to innovate, developing lateral thinking and problem solving skills
  • are developing transferrable skills that are applicable to other sectors and industries.

In addition, one of the fundamental principles of Apprentice Assured is that the apprentice will be working towards nationally recognised professional qualifications, such as EngTech, with the chance of extending their study to a university degree and beyond, once their apprenticeship is complete.

It’s still very early days, but it is my sincere hope that Apprentice Assured, or something like it, will pave the way towards a national standard. Current inconsistencies within the system are tarnishing the reputation of apprenticeships as a whole.

It should not matter where the apprentice lives, which sector they have chosen to join, or what size of company they are placed with. All apprentices should be guaranteed a high quality training experience.

This is a work in progress, but if we can achieve consistent standards of apprenticeships, the long term effects will be a virtual circle. Employers, seeing how apprentices are invigorating and adding value to their businesses, may be encouraged to take on more recruits; correspondingly, school leavers will start viewing apprenticeships as something to aspire to, rather than a second best option if they can’t go to university. And all this may just help the Government meet its ambitious target for 2020.

Professor Sa’ad Medhat PhD CEng FIET FCIM FCMI FRSA FIKE FIoD is chief executive of NEF: The Innovation Institute, an educational charity and professional body dedicated to creating a more innovative and entrepreneurial workforce.


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