Apprenticeships have a long history and are widely recognised as a powerful form of learning. Not all young people thrive in a school or college environment: some find the world of work more stimulating and a better place to learn. Apprenticeships provide such people with the workplace experience and training to give them the best possible start in their careers.
We welcome much of the Government's policy in seeking to raise the standards of apprenticeships, including some of the measures contained within the Draft Apprenticeships Bill. We are not convinced, however, that legislation is strictly necessary to achieve this. A DIUS Minister spoke of the "symbolic importance" of embedding in legislation the value of developing the skills base, but we question whether it is a good use of Parliamentary time to consider "symbolic" legislation.
The real bite in the Draft Bill lies in the duty to be placed on the Learning and Skills Council (and, in due course, successor bodies), to secure the availability of apprenticeship places for anyone above compulsory school age but under 19, and who holds the necessary entry level requirements. Given the economic downturn, we have grave doubts about whether such a statutory duty can be met. Even if it can, we fear that the pressure of that duty could lead to the quality of apprenticeships being compromised.
We agree with the Government that there is considerable scope for increasing the supply of apprenticeship placements in the public sector, which has consistently lagged behind the private sector. We believe that many hospitals, schools, colleges and local authorities will already have junior posts which would be suitable placements for apprentices if the apprenticeship framework requirements can be met and standards guaranteed. Progress in increasing the number of public sector apprenticeships should be monitored and reported on. The Government's aspiration for a greater supply of apprenticeships and greater diversity of entry to apprenticeships is very much dependent for success on the ability of the public sector to take up the apprenticeship challenge.
We also strongly support group apprenticeship schemes, in which an organisation would have links to smaller firms which, singly, would find it difficult to offer the breadth of experience or continuity of work required for an apprenticeship. The Government should assess the potential for expanding group apprenticeship schemes and should develop models for funding and operating them.
Our concerns about the impact of the challenging economic circumstances extend beyond apprenticeships. The Government plans to introduce legislation in the 2008-09 Parliamentary Session to transfer responsibility for funding and delivering education and training for 16 to 18-year-olds from the Learning and Skills Council to local authorities. This will be a dramatic change and, given the current economic challenges, we urge the Government to proceed with caution to ensure that learning and skills for young people is not impeded by the radical administrative reorganisation this fundamental shift involves.