Apprenticeships are attracting a huge amounts of interest from across the political spectrum. We've come a long way from the days when Tony Blair is said to have joked that political interest in vocational education was such that he could make a declaration of war in a speech about skills and no-one would ever notice.
But political focus is not a proxy for good policy - and as the government embarks on a new tranche of apprenticeship reform, it's important to take a good look at what is being proposed. There are four areas where the government should be focusing:
Firstly, we need to get employers properly engaged in the system. The lack of proper employer engagement has always been the Achilles heel of the British apprenticeship system. Despite significant skills gaps in our labour markets, there are simply not enough employers investing in growing their own future workforce through apprenticeships. The result is a shortage of the apprenticeships that we need - it is estimated that there are 11 applicants for every apprenticeship advertised online, whilst Rolls Royce recently received 4,000 applications for 200 positions.
For that reason, the recent announcement of an apprenticeship levy for large firms (which those employing apprentices can more than recover) is to be welcomed, in the hope that it might tip the balance in favour of some firms participating in the apprenticeship system for the first time. It's not a panacea however. As with any funding initiative, the devil will be in the detail, and since the scheme only impacts on large companies (250+ employees), government will still have to find innovative ways to engage and properly support small and medium sized enterprises to participate in the apprenticeship system.
Secondly, we need to look beyond raw numbers. The creation of a new target to create 3 million apprenticeship starts in the next five years is more questionable. There are real concerns that apprenticeships policy will degenerate into a numbers game. Indeed, while 2 million apprenticeships were started under the 5 years of the Coalition government there have already been questions asked around quality. 10% of all new apprentices were employed by the supermarket Morrison's at one point in 2012, whilst of the 250,000 apprenticeship starts in 2013/14 just 250 were in science and maths.
A relentless focus on the number of starts might lead to some odd incentives for government and for providers and there is a risk that the reality of the apprenticeships system will stand in stark contrast to government rhetoric around highly skilled, technical degree-level apprenticeships. As Tom Bewick, Managing Director of New Work Training warns, there is a danger the government might be in danger of "hitting the target, but missing the point."
Labour's former Skills spokesperson, John Woodcock agrees - and says there is a "huge concern" that the target will skew the system towards churning out numbers at the expense of quality. "We shouldn't be shy about calling out poor apprenticeships that don't give people genuine start in life... if those apprenticeships do not genuinely embed people in the world of work and set them up for a future profession, then we are doing a disservice to those young people coming into them."
Thirdly, we need to build the apprenticeship brand. Apprenticeships must been seen as a high quality option that both parents and young people aspire to. One element of this has to be expanding progression routes. The vast majority of apprenticeship starts in the last parliament were at intermediate level - equivalent to 5 GCSEs. Meanwhile, there are currently only a handful of apprenticeship frameworks where progressing to a degree-equivalent qualification is an option. Employers and professional bodies need to step up here and play a greater role in the development of apprenticeship frameworks. As the Skills Commission has argued, a 14-year-old studying a vocational qualification in school or a 16 year-old embarking on a Level 2 apprenticeship should already be on the first rung of a ladder which could lead them to chartered status.
Finally, whilst the overall direction of apprenticeship reform is to be welcomed, the government should be careful not to inadvertently damage high-performing parts of the system in the process. The often hidden role that the best training providers can play - in guiding small businesses through the labyrinth funding system; filtering out the tiny minority of exploitative employers just looking for temporary labour they don't have to pay the minimum wage to; and matching apprentices to employers' needs - should not be overlooked.
Depending on the success of these reforms is not just Britain's industrial base - thousands of businesses across the country that desperately require skilled workers - but another entire generation of young people, the workforce of tomorrow, looking to finally get the high-quality reliable vocational routes to prosperity that they deserve.