With National Apprenticeship Week in its eleventh year it’s great to celebrate the successes of apprentices nationwide, the life chances they give and the work of those colleges, employers and providers delivering them. It was of course the last Labour Government that rejuvenated the apprenticeship programme, setting up the National Apprenticeship Service and this week, leading to the range of opportunities available to young people today.
Throughout this week I’ll be meeting apprentices and those employers and providers helping them - from all parts of the country, including from my Blackpool constituency. It’s crucial we recognise the diversity of the different sectors, service, digital and creative as well as manufacturing and hi tech, needed to make a success of the apprenticeship programme.
Discussions and experiences I’ll be taking on board this week stress the diversity of the sector - including in the leisure and hospitality industry at Levels 2 and 3, vital to the local economy in my Blackpool constituency, to higher level and degree apprenticeships with the BBC and the Sutton Trust as well as the wonderful achievements across the engineering sector celebrated at the Semta Skills Awards which I spoke at last Thursday - a great warm up for NAW2018!
National Apprenticeship Week does great work to highlight the opportunities and successes - and UK Skills, the body that organises our participation in World and EuroSkills competition, does tremendous work as well. That’s not just in terms of the magnificent tally of medals we gained last year at WorldSkills in Abu Dhabi, but also what I’ve seen the UK competitors do afterwards with them at events countrywide as Skills Champions and role models. There is no substitute for people who have been there and got the t-shirt (or medal) - they energise and inspire others to follow their lead.
That’s also why I value the work of both the Industry Apprentice Council - linked with Semta - and also the National Society of Apprentices which operates under the auspices of NUS. That’s why Labour has consistently demanded a proper seat at the table for them both in DfE and also on the panels and board of the Institute for Apprentices. We will carry on doing so - they represent thousands of young eager apprentices.
Yet beyond issues of expansion and diversity comes the challenge of protecting the aspirations of our young people amidst a changing apprenticeship climate. The latest Government apprenticeship starts figures show there were just 27,000 apprenticeship starts last November, 40% fewer than in 2016. This follows the pattern we have seen since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in April where take-up by young people and employers is decreasing.
Unfortunately the reality of the precarious situation many apprentices find themselves in has been very apparent over the last year. The scandal around Learndirect now underlined by the stinging report from the Public Accounts Committee and the collapse of Carillion leaving thousands of apprentices without employment temporarily, and with some still unable to continue their learning, should be a huge wakeup call for Government.
On top of that over half the learners left high and dry by the collapse of providers John Frank Training Limited, Edudo Limited and Focus Training & Development Limited still have no new providers and are left with outstanding debts to the Department for Education and the Student Loans Company for courses they have been unable to complete.
This time last year I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate designed to highlight the raw deal our apprentices get in comparison to other learners. Too often in the past we have spoken about apprenticeships but not enough about the individual apprentice. That message needs to be repeated loud and clear in National Apprenticeship Week and Government needs finally to break down the silos between DWP and DfE which have caused so many of these problems, impacting negatively on the life chances and social mobility of disadvantaged young people.
Last year I pledged that we would look at ways to make it easier for our apprentices, including finding a solution to the extortionate travel costs many of them face just getting to work. It was interesting to see the Government imitate us in promising to look at this in their manifesto but so far nothing concrete has appeared.
We will continue on the back of our regular rounds of discussions with stakeholders to develop our offer to apprentices. And now with the rollout of the principles that will underpin Labour’s National Education Service it gives us the chance to make sure people from all backgrounds both young and older have the opportunity to grasp one of the life-changing quality apprenticeships that we believe must be at the heart of our future skills base in the 2020s.
Gordon Marsden is the Labour MP for Blackpool South and Shadow Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills