It's Time to Keep Vocational Working in the Spotlight

10/10/2012 11:00 BST | Updated 08/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Last week, at the Labour Party Conference, leader of the opposition Ed Miliband called for a new gold-standard vocational qualification - a technical baccalaureate for 18 year olds to help transform the lives of the "forgotten 50%" - the half of the population of young people that do not go to university.

Naturally as an Apprenticeship provider, Pearson in Practice strongly supports these calls to raise awareness and grow the Apprenticeship offering in the UK. For us, vocational working and Apprenticeship programmes are as important - and equal to a university degree and it's encouraging to see that the Labour party thinks the same.

But it is not always as straightforward as Mr Miliband might suggest - and we do not want to follow in the failed footsteps of the previous Labour government's 14-19 diploma scheme. As a hybrid of vocational and academic learning this was a half measure on both fronts and as a result, neither was successful.

It's true that there has been an increased media interest in Apprenticeships and vocational working- take the Evening Standard's "Ladder for London" campaign as an example. Launched very recently, this campaign is designed to drive London employers to commit to offering Apprenticeship roles.

Yet despite such campaigns, many employers both in London and across the regions still believe that Apprenticeships are just for traditional careers - such as plumbing and manufacturing and at the lower end of the educational scale. This is no longer the case as there are Apprenticeships at Advanced and Higher Level in PR, radio production, creative and digital media - what we like to call '21st century' Apprenticeships, with many employers on board supporting these schemes.

It is thanks to the support of these industries and their trade bodies such as the PRCA, COMPTIA and CILEX, that we are able to continue making a difference and spreading the importance of vocational working one industry at a time.

The challenges that the country faces in growing the vocational offering are huge - many employers dislike the idea of an Apprenticeship programme because of the lack of stability of the scheme and the fact that it can be subject to change and intervention from government. One real solution to this would be to define Apprenticeships as a distinct part of the education system - ensuring a stable, long term offering which would help to give employers and learners the confidence that they need. This, alongside the more widespread recognition of Apprenticeship learning by Universities, would illustrate to young people, and their parents, that Apprenticeships could be a more viable option for them and they could always lead to a degree later in life.

Apprenticeships must be delivered by both private and public sector bodies that are close to, and understand exactly what employers need and how apprentices can help support existing business models. The civil service should not be exempt as Apprenticeships could form an important role in diversifying the pool of talent that this sector traditionally relies on. After all, if we are promoting Apprenticeships for employers then it is vital that the public sector comes on board and sets an example.

The idea of only awarding substantial public sector contracts to those companies that agree to train a significant number of the next generation of Apprenticeships is one that we fully endorse. This idea was originally put forward by Labour MP Catherine McKinnell as part of her private members bill. Although this did not get through the last parliament, it is encouraging that this is now part of Labour party policy.

We will continue to spread the word of Apprenticeships to businesses and industries and welcome the renewed interest in the discussion of vocational working. Having worked in this area for some time, Apprenticeships are an important element of any business, and a seriously viable option for young people starting out on their careers today.