A lot of heat – but how much light? Labour’s proposal on apprenticeships

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Written by Martyn Sloman on 24 September 2013 in Opinion

The Miliband proposal has one very positive aspect and one very negative aspect, Martyn Sloman says

It's not often that a proposal on apprenticeships makes the headlines on the evening news but Ed Miliband achieved it this week. The Labour leader announced plans to make large companies train a new apprentice for each skilled worker hired from outside the EU.  In that way, it was claimed, 125, 000 high quality apprenticeship places would be created.  

Not surprisingly the proposal has given rise to an immediate furore. Opposition has been voiced on practical grounds - how could such an initiative be monitored and enforced? Both the British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI condemned the proposals as adding more red tape.  More significant have been challenges on the legality of the proposal. The argument here, gleefully articulated by the Coalition Skills Minister Matthew Hancock, is that to comply with European rules of free movement of labour, the policy would have to require the creation of a place for an EU national rather than a UK citizen. 

However, look behind the banter of Party Conference season, with the inevitable effort by party leaders to produce the compelling sound-bite, and the Miliband proposal has one very positive aspect and one very negative aspect.  

Let's start with the positive. For the first time the debate on apprenticeship is moving beyond hype and promotion and is being nudged into the area of company obligations. Next month the National Apprenticeship Service will produce its annual summary of on-line applications and places: the former will exceed the latter by a ratio of about 10 to 1. Current policies, based on excessive promotion of schemes and incentivising private training providers will simply not produce the places. More radical solutions are required. The sooner we recognise that the better. In my view employers should be required to fulfill broader objectives. What I am proposing, as a first step, is that corporate law, and in particular the Companies Act, should be reviewed to introduce more specific obligations for workforce development, including obligations that reflect wider societal needs.  

The negative feature of the Miliband announcement is that it has conflated skills and employment policy with immigration policy. This may produce headlines and play to certain sections of the electorate, but is damaging in terms of the wider debate that is so desperately needed in advance of the next election. Some time this autumn the Government will articulate a formal response to the Richard Review of Apprenticeships. The Richard Review reported in November 2012: the Government's response seems to have been delayed forever and the opposition has been largely silent, however, the most important of the Richard review recommendation is that the definition of the term apprentice should be tightened. To quote: "An apprenticeship without a job is a form of vocational training. An apprenticeship in an old job is on-the-job training. There must be a job and the job role must be new". 

It is a shame that the current hype on the Miliband proposal will shift the focus of the debate away from a discussion on 'what are apprenticeships for?' and take it into the point-scoring arena of adversarial politics. Interestingly for Labour supporters the nature of apprenticeships was precisely the ground covered in a Labour Party Policy Review chaired by Chris Husbands of the London Institute of Education. The Review, A revolution apprenticeships: a something-for-something deal with employers, identified the dearth of high quality apprenticeships. I am no means convinced that its central conclusion is correct: "give more ownership of the skills system and funding to employers, collectively, and ask in return that they create more and better apprenticeships." However the Husbands Review does take the debate forward. Sadly its publication has been totally overshadowed by the Ed Miliband's announcement on apprenticeships and immigration that was made on  the same day. I will return to the Husbands Review in a future blog.

The Husbands Report can be downloaded at: http://feweek.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/something-for-something.pdf

About the author

Martyn Sloman is a visiting professor at Kingston Business School and a teaching fellow at Birkbeck College. He is principal consultant to TJ's L&D 2020 project and can be contacted at martynsloman@me.com


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