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Modern Apprenticeships – government’s flagship scheme flops


Two out of three young people who start modern apprenticeships - one of the government's flagship training programmes - fail to complete them properly.

The first performance figures published for the scheme since its launch five years ago reveal that of the 130,000 16- to 24-year-olds who have left the programme since September 1994, just 32% have gained the required level 3 national vocational qualification (NVQ).

And only half of those leaving a modern apprenticeship in recent months said that they had finished their training.
The figures also show that eight out of 10 trainees who left a modern apprenticeship within the last year or so were still in work six months later, often with the same employer.

But, though encouraging, this is not fulfilling the policy, nor addressing what is seen as a critical national shortage of people with level 3 qualifications, compared with the equivalent situations in France and Germany.

The reasons why so few young men and women are completing this half billion pound programme have yet to be analysed. It is suspected that in many cases, employers decide that a modern apprentice has gained enough to carry on in their job without completing the NVQ 3, and the trainees often concur.
The discreet mode of releasing these results prompted accusations from the further education sector that the government is not even-handed in its treatment of college- and employer-based training.

The information slipped out in the September edition of Labour Market Trends, issued by the Government Statistical Services, with no accompanying ministerial comment. But surely, principals protested, there would be a hullabaloo if similar statistics emerged about achievement rates in colleges.

In fact the 32% achievement rate for modern apprentices compares dismally with the latest achievement statistic - 77% gaining a level 3 qualification - for 16- to 18-year-olds in colleges.

Ray Dowd, principal of Wirral Metropolitan college, said: "We've been led to believe by ministers that employer-led training is significantly superior to college-based training, but these figures don't bear this out."

A fellow principal said: "Ministers are never shy of speaking out if colleges underachieve, and rightly so, but this looks as if they are unwilling to criticise employers for fear of upsetting them."

Dowd said there was another discrepancy. Colleges are financially penalised if students leave before the end of a course to get a job. Employers, however, face no penalty if a modern apprentice drops out.

The Department for Education and Employment rejected the accusation of being softer on industry and employers. A spokesman said there clearly was a problem which needed addressing, although the 32% represented a significant advance on the 24% figure recorded a year before.

In fact, the government's decision to scrap the Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs), which played a leading role in administering the apprenticeships, could in part reflect a disappointment with the programme's performance.

John Brennan, director of policy development at the Association of Colleges, said: "Clearly it is disappointing that these achievement levels aren't higher and there are questions to be asked about how standards are to be raised."
Modern apprenticeships (MAs) were piloted in the autumn of 1994 and expanded to a full national programme a year later.
The then Conservative government challenged industry to develop a new, high-quality approach to training young people to NVQ level 3.

The programme was enthusiastically continued when Labour came to power. A key feature of modern apprenticeships was that they should extend much wider across the world of work than the engineering and heavy industry which had been the province of traditional apprenticeships.

So far, training "frameworks" have been devised for 80 industries, ranging from accountancy to wool textiles. According to best estimates - there are no centrally-collected figures - the programme involves some 14,000 employers.

The rates of achievement of an NVQ level 3 vary considerably between industries. Among the five biggest, motor industry (44%) and engineering manufacturing (36%) are better than the average, while hospitality (15%) and retailing (11%) are significantly worse.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool university, said the figures were disappointing and reckoned that part of the problem stemmed from flaws in the NVQ concept. "The basic problem with the NVQs is that they don't count for very much - they are not required to get particular jobs, and you're not likely to get paid much more if you have one," he said.

Traditional apprenticeships, by contrast, were an essential passport to their industries, which raised serious issues of restrictive practices and time-serving. "Nevertheless people worked for the old apprenticeships because they were an entry requirement to many trades, and there was a lot of pride in completing them.

"Modern apprenticeships aren't integrated into industry in that way, which is one reason why students aren't bothering to finish them."


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