Apprenticeship growth is great, but let's focus on standards too

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Provisional data released today shows the Government has hit the half-a-million mark for Apprenticeship starts. Today's data reveals 502,500 people started an apprenticeship in 2011/12, up from 457,200 in 2010/11.

Such growth will be welcomed by manufacturers, a sector with a proven track record in offering apprenticeships. A forthcoming report by EEF reveals that 74 per cent of manufacturers that offer Apprenticeship programmes did so in the past 12 months.

What is also important to highlight from today's data is the growth in higher-level Apprenticeships. Whilst Intermediate Apprenticeships have their place in our economy, especially in terms of laying the foundation for developing further skills, EEF has been calling for a rise in the number of Advanced and Higher apprenticeships, which will deliver higher-level skills needed by the UK to remain globally competitive. EEF's The Route to Growth report sets out a clear benchmark for an increase in STEM Apprenticeships at Level 3 and above to be achieved by 2015.

Today we begin to see this growth emerging – with Advanced Apprenticeship starts at 180,400 and Higher Apprenticeships starts at 3,500. What we don't have yet is the subject breakdown, so we will have to wait and see whether the Government is on track to meet our target.

Apprenticeships are more than just a numbers game. Whilst it's easy to get excited about reaching a half-a-million milestone, we must also focus on raising standards.

Some of this relates to delivering higher-level skills for future growth, focusing on Advanced and Intermediate Apprenticeships in sectors experiencing real skills shortages, as I have already touched upon. But we can also do more.

Firstly, we must re-direct funding to drive further investment. Manufacturing Apprenticeships are costly and lengthy and require considerable amounts of investment. Employers of all sizes need to be able to easily draw down funding directly, which, combined with their own money, will give them direct purchasing power. This will create a competitive training market where the customer is king.

We also need to increase employer involvement in developing frameworks and qualifications around Apprenticeships to meet industry needs. A demand-led system must include a revision of current frameworks by employers who should own them. Sector Skills Councils need to increase their engagement with employers, specifically SMEs.

There is also work to do in improving the quality of Apprenticeship candidates. When recruiting apprentices manufacturers prioritise not only enthusiasm for the sector but also attainment in English, maths and the sciences. We must then drive up teaching standards in our schools to ensure that 65% of school leavers achieve five GCSEs at A* to C grade including English and maths when leaving the education system.

These are just a few steps that we can take not only to boost quantity but also quality.

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Head of Education & Skills Policy

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