|In 2013, Lord Alan Sugar made headlines when he was taken to court by The Apprentice 2010 winner Stella English, who argued that the ‘apprenticeship’ she had been awarded consisted only of basic administrative tasks. The claim was roundly dismissed by Lord Sugar, who suggested instead that she had had inflated expectations. While the government is unlikely to look to The Apprentice for lessons on technical education, the incident speaks to a long-standing truth about apprenticeships in Britain. Unlike our German or Nordic counterparts, vocational education is something that in the UK we continually struggle to get right.
Almost exactly a year ago the Apprenticeship Levy was announced by government, heralded as a major step towards its ambition to create three million apprenticeships by 2020. Just a few months after its introduction, however, the number of people starting apprenticeships was actually down by 61%. In the LCCI and London Councils Business 1000 survey conducted by ComRes, 41% of business leaders said that they saw no benefits to increasing the number of apprentices in their company. Little has changed since then: in ComRes’ most recent Quarterly Economic Survey for the LCCI , just 3% of business surveyed said that they had employed apprentices in the last three months in order to acquire new skills for their business.
The issue goes beyond the Levy’s teething problems, however. In 2015, the Sutton Trust’s Levels of Success report drew on a ComRes poll of young adults to suggest it was ‘ingrained’ in British culture that apprenticeships were less valuable than degrees. This year, Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted that when it came to finding an apprenticeship for his vocationally-minded son, ‘it is staggeringly hard even to find the right opportunities…. Everything points to university as the default.’ In a ComRes survey of MPs for the Young Women’s Trust in January, fully 83% said that they were concerned that some young people are encouraged to go to university when an apprenticeship may be more appropriate.
Despite Theresa May’s repeated insistence of her commitment to fight the ‘burning injustices’ at the heart of British society, the disparity between vocational and academic education is an issue which remains unresolved. The review of post-18 education announced in February reiterated the Prime Minister’s ambition to create a ‘great meritocracy’ in Britain. But the fallout from the Apprenticeship Levy indicates that ingrained cultural prejudices can be hard to shake. Its critics suggest that it has undermined, not improved the quality of placements, with businesses simply re-labelling low paid jobs as apprenticeships or using the levy money for managerial training courses.
It is clear that the government has a formidable task on its hands if it is to meet its 2020 target. Yet the UK desperately needs the skills that high quality apprenticeships can deliver, not least as the March 2019 Brexit deadline looms and skills shortages continue.