Everyone wants more apprentices, as long as their own children go to university instead


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It’s that vanishingly rare thing: an idea that finds favour with nearly every political party, the business community, and the public at large. Just about everyone wants to talk about apprenticeship schemes and how making more of them available would be a thoroughly good thing.

At least in principle. Research by the cross-party Commission on Apprenticeships has found that while the idea of expanding the schemes commands nearly universal support –  a survey found more than 90 per cent of the public to be in favour – only a minority actually want to see their kids on one.

Vince Cable's department failing on apprenticeships

They’d still rather pack them off to university, even if they aren’t particularly academically gifted and might end up starting their working lives saddled with £40,000 or more in debt, and even if they get a 2.2 from a modest institution and a job doing full time what they did part time after school before entering higher education. If they’re lucky. 

Would some of those parents  – and their children – rethink if they were to be offered an apprenticeship by the likes of Rolls-Royce or BAE Systems, both of which offer high-quality, sought-after training programmes that can serve as a starting point for lucrative careers? Quite possibly.

But these are the gold standard. Lower down the scale there are certain employers that would be only too happy to use calling someone an apprentice as an excuse to get their hands on  a stack of government cash – while at the same time paying their younger staff less than the minimum wage.

With the number of apprenticeships set to increase dramatically whatever the next government’s hue, it is understandable that people are a just a mite concerned that there will be a lot more of the second type of scheme. There are only so many Rolls- Royce apprenticeships to go round, after all.

For such a policy to be even moderately successful, a government that pursues it will therefore need to ensure that those seeking its funding have proper schemes – and are alive to the need for quality control once the programme has started.

For that to happen, our future government might very well need to row back on some of the gaudy numbers being thrown around in the pre-election sparring.

The cross-party report posits a range of ideas to improve things, such as getting schools to offer more vocational courses (as if they didn’t already have enough on their plates), and mutual guarantees between employer and apprentice so that if the former invests then it can be assured off a pay-off from the latter. Or at least a pay- back. It all sounds fine as far as it goes.

However, work also needs to be done to counter the snobbery in Britain for anything deemed “vocational”, and it wouldn’t hurt to set an example set from the top.

Both the commission’s chairs went to elite universities – so did almost every member of both the Cabinet and its shadow. If the establishment wants British parents and school leavers to buy into apprenticeships, it wouldn’t hurt to start recruiting from among the ranks of people who have completed one. That way, future commissions like this could be chaired by them.