Apprenticeships have been in decline for some time. But a new government push is aiming to raise their profile and popularity, says Steve McCormack

A decade ago, the apprenticeships system was withering on the vine. Its health was being stifled, at least in part, by its reputation as something belonging to the past: oily overalls, dirty hands, industries in decline. But, towards the end of the Tories' period in office, new life was injected into the system, under a new name - Modern Apprenticeships. Participation increased fourfold, to its current level of 255,000 18- to 24-year-olds undergoing the part-work-based, part-college training.

A decade ago, the apprenticeships system was withering on the vine. Its health was being stifled, at least in part, by its reputation as something belonging to the past: oily overalls, dirty hands, industries in decline. But, towards the end of the Tories' period in office, new life was injected into the system, under a new name - Modern Apprenticeships. Participation increased fourfold, to its current level of 255,000 18- to 24-year-olds undergoing the part-work-based, part-college training.

Now, the Government wants to build on the momentum and, at the same time, try to tackle the continuing lack of enthusiasm among too many employers, and the high drop-out rate of apprentices in some sectors. So there's been another revamp. It's partially a game of musical names, but when the music stopped, there were some changes of substance as well as new labels: for the first time, children aged 14 to 16 and the over-24s will be able to participate, and there's also a new push, backed by an £8m marketing campaign, to try to persuade a new wave of employers to sign up.

The campaign's television adverts deliberately focus on small and medium-sized businesses. A florist and baker are portrayed alongside telecommunications and office environments. If more employers are attracted, there's more Government money to fund the resultant apprenticeships: £1bn available this year, up from £800m last year.

The reaction around the FE world to the relaunch was broadly positive. The Association of Colleges (AoC) identified low employer interest as one of the current obstacles to increased take-up, but warned that, if there was a surge of new apprenticeships, the colleges would need increased resources, on top of the money that follows every student.

"I think the Government have huge expectations of colleges, but there is a problem funding the growth they're calling for," says Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the AoC. "There's a gap between the aspirations and the funding currently available to pay for them."

She welcomed the move to open up the apprenticeship experience to the 14-16 age bracket. "Seventy thousand 14- to 16-year-olds are already experiencing college in one way or another, and this is hugely motivating for them. They talk about being treated like adults for the first time and this has a knock-on effect back at school. However, the college study for these teenagers needs to be broad enough so that they do not close off too many options at too young an age."

The college lecturers' union, Nafthe, though also broadly supportive, questions the readiness and capacity of lecturers to deal with students in the new, younger age group: "We have major concerns about college staff being properly trained to deal with the extra behavioural problems that these teenagers can sometimes present," explains Dan Taubman, Nafthe's national education official.

Professor Lorna Unwin, from the Centre of Labour Market Studies at Leicester University, applauds the television campaign as she feels employers' attitudes are key.

"Reputable employers who have embraced the system need to be able to promote their apprenticeships in the local media, and employers who take on apprentices need to understand that it is a full commitment that has to be seen through to the end." Unwin also thinks the Government must take responsibility for raising the status of apprenticeships among young people and their parents.

"The Government is sending out mixed messages at the moment," she explains. "On the one hand they are encouraging more and more school leavers to go off to do full-time academic study at university, while at the same time calling for more teenagers to start apprenticeships. This makes it difficult for schools to give advice."

It's indisputable, however, that when it works, an apprenticeship can be a satisfying and rewarding way for a teenager to make the transition into the world of work, while at the same time acquiring new skills and qualifications.

Luke Albutt, who is 18, is a year and a half into a retailing apprenticeship with Tesco in Solihull. After getting 12 GCSEs, he started an IT course at a local college, but decided work-based training was more suitable. Now he's part of a team preparing all price labelling and other information in a busy urban supermarket. He's enthusiastic about the benefits. "I'm getting paid and it's much better to get real experience in a job and learn at the same time," he explains. "In the future, I'd like to climb the ladder and go into management."

Amy Whelan, from Leicester, started an advanced apprenticeship in communication with BT Wholesale in September 2002. She'd joined BT after leaving school with 10 GCSEs and one AS-level. Now 20, she works in a team using computers to plan cabling and ducting, a job that includes doing site surveys.

"I thought an apprenticeship offered better prospects than full-time education. I know I can still get good qualifications, and I prefer to work and get some training at the same time," she says.

Among the aims of the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the Government agency charged with driving through these reforms, is to turn each apprenticeship into an accredited qualification in its own right, and to allow young people to move jobs and carry with them the elements of the apprenticeship that they've already accomplished. The hope is that this will reduce the drop-out rate.

The LSC's director of work-based learning, Stephen Gardner, is optimistic of achieving a substantial increase in employer participation, but recognises there's still a selling job to be done in schools.

"Building the reputation and stressing the importance of jobs based on technician-type skills has been overlooked. With this new push on apprenticeships, we are trying to redress that balance."

THE NEW SYSTEM

* Young apprenticeships. For 14-16 year olds. Pilot scheme for 1,000 students starts in September. A two-year programme run in parallel with GCSEs. Up to two days a week at a workplace, the rest at school.

* Pre-apprenticeships. Also known as Entry to Employment (E2E). For over-16s disengaged with formal education. Designed to bring them back into learning habits ready for work, college or a "proper" apprenticeship.

* Apprenticeships. For 16- to 24-year-olds. A re-naming of the Foundation Modern Apprenticeships to take students to NVQ level two.

* Advanced apprenticeships: For 16- to 24-year-olds. A re-naming of the Advanced Modern Apprenticeships, this takes students to NVQ level three, and includes work that can lead to degree-level study.

* Apprenticeships for adults: For the over-24s. This removes the previous bar to people who have passed their 25th birthday.

education@independent.co.uk

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