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Hilary Steedman: A brave new world for apprenticeships

Not long ago I was seated next to the Swiss ambassador at an LSE function. He had kindly looked up my research interest – apprenticeship – on my web page. "My son has just completed an apprenticeship," he confided. I wasn't surprised. Over half of all young people in Switzerland go through an apprenticeship, and a placement with a blue chip company is highly sought-after. Apprenticeship in Switzerland leads to higher earnings, better employment chances and, for some, to a university place. One of this country's best-kept secrets is that the same is true for England.

Around a fifth of young people in England experience an apprenticeship by age 25 and, if they are young men, are likely to have much higher earnings than those who gained the same qualifications without an apprenticeship. Competition for apprentice places with blue chip companies such as BT is fierce – 15,000 applications for 80 places! It would be easier for a sixth former to get to a top university than to get an apprenticeship with BT.

Why are these opportunities not better known by school leavers? The main reason is that the great majority of schools don't tell their students that they exist. Talking to half a dozen engineering apprentices, we learnt that not one had been told about apprenticeship at school. Most had chanced upon the training through press advertisements or careers guidance.

How does apprenticeship work? A school leaver with a decent number of GCSEs – but probably below the magic five A to C grades – is judged capable of starting an apprenticeship which, when completed, will lead to the award of a skill qualification (NVQ 2) together with key skills and some relevant technical knowledge. Advanced Apprenticeship at NVQ Level 3 is available for those already at Level 2. On average, apprenticeships last for a year or a bit more, and apprentices are paid around half the wage of a fully-skilled worker. The Government pays for the training while the employer meets all the other costs.

In spite of the near invisibility of apprenticeship as a pathway to skilled employment, there are many more young people who want an apprenticeship than there are places available. Only six per cent of English firms offer apprenticeships compared to nearly a third in Germany. No one knows how many young people who could have benefited from apprenticeship have been let down by the lack of places.

The shortfall in apprentice places is not the only problem that has developed over the past decade. Apprenticeship training varies unacceptably from sector to sector. Some apprentices – mostly young men – receive several years of intensive training while others – mostly young women in service sector occupations – receive far too little. Apprentice employers are expected to bear a heavier financial burden and receive less support than they do in other countries, which helps to explain why more haven't offered places. There are great gaps in the data collected on apprenticeship. At least six government agencies have some responsibility for apprenticeship but no one is in charge.

All this is about to change, according to proposals published last month and endorsed by the Prime Minister. From 2013 all 16-year-olds who want an apprenticeship and who gain five or more GCSE passes including functional maths and English will be entitled to an apprenticeship place.

A National Apprenticeship Service will take responsibility for finding the places, monitoring quality and standards and ensuring equitable access, and progression, including progression to foundation degrees. Employers will be able to select apprenticeship training to fit the needs of their business but must guarantee time for off-the-job training. As in other countries, there will be additional payments to some employers to encourage them to offer extra places. Government funding will expand to meet the demand from employers and the supply of young people.

Schools will have a new role to play as sources of information on the full range of opportunities available to students aged 16 or 17. The Education and Skills Bill before Parliament will place a duty on schools to present their pupils with a full range of options for their learning from 16 onwards and not promote any one pathway over any other.

The apprenticeship entitlement, together with the proposed requirement for 16- and 17-year-olds to remain in some form of education and training could help to give a sense of purpose and raise achievement of those who currently lose interest in school in their early teens. This is a new landscape of hope and opportunity for teachers and students, who, until now, have struggled to find a purpose in school work.

The writer is a research associate at the Centre for Economic Performance, at the LSE