FOR SUCH an important announcement, the launch of the government's 'world-class apprenticeships' scheme has evoked a curiously muted response. After all, the unsatisfactory interface between education and work is one of the UK's most vexatious and long-running sores, crimping the lives of millions and helping to confound all efforts to raise the UK's lagging productivity. In this context, guaranteeing every qualified school-leaver an apprenticeship by 2013 and boosting overall numbers to 400,000 by 2020, as the scheme requires, is nothing short of revolutionary - potentially the biggest change for 50 years.
Such worthy subjects have been thoroughly overshadowed by the latest turns in the City vaudeville show. But it is striking that while employer and professional bodies such as the EEF and Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) are broadly in favour of the initiative, they are hardly brimming over with enthusiasm.
One reason for the shortage of enthusiasm is that, as educationalists point out, this is a purely government initiative. In any other European country, a scheme of this magnitude could only have emerged as a joint commitment between government, employers, trade unions and the education system. The apprenticeships, by contrast, are a product of, and the main instrument in, the government's plans to keep teenagers in full-time education or training until 18, and increase the stock of national skills. As Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College, notes, the figures are top-down calculations derived from policy requirements rather than commitments of demand and supply on the ground, leaving question marks about the feasibility, and even appropriateness, of the numbers.
Many of the misgivings can be traced back to this central weakness. Everyone agrees that structured, flexible and appropriate apprenticeships combining training and education are a huge benefit to individuals, to companies that know how to make use of them, and to the economy as a whole. Schemes run by Rolls-Royce, BT and a number of other large companies, for example, have great cachet, set high standards and are greatly oversubscribed. Such companies run apprenticeship schemes because they believe they are essential for their future - the best way to prepare for key jobs.
More generally, they form the backbone of the whole employment system in Germany, where they provide an accepted guarantee of shared commercial and technical knowledge. Such apprenticeships are a key economic strength. But both the EEF and CIPD wonder how quickly demand and supply of such high-level programmes can be expanded. Currently, more young people want apprenticeships than can be accommodated, and overall numbers declined this year.
'Apprenticeships aren't costless,' says the CIPD's John McGurk, and require long-term commitment to set up and run. Both bodies warn that rebranding other lower-level initiatives under the apprenticeship banner to meet numbers would devalue the status and defeat the object. There are other doubts.
German Industry UK, an umbrella body for German companies employing upwards of 500,000 people in the UK, has long been concerned with the shortage of suitably qualified new recruits for skilled jobs - to the point where it set up its own vocational training school to complement on-the-job company training. Last year it met David Lammy, the minister responsible for apprenticeships, to air German concerns and offer help. 'It's not a question of saying Ger many is best or the only system,' insists Bob Bischof, a board member of the association and 40-year UK resident. 'But we do have a lot of experience - of apprenticeships in particular and of representing the interests of the "real" economy, as opposed the chimerical world of the City, in general.'
This, he believes, gives the German opinion some weight - German employers believe further education arrangements are too complex, suffer from too many overlapping initiatives and fail to offer suitable curricula for serious business. Dividing responsibilities for apprenticeships between two new education ministries and changing the funding arrangements doesn't help either.
Meanwhile, no one knows what the government's new 'diplomas' are supposed to be for and how they fit with the other components of the system. In a wider context, Bischof says, most people ignore the fact that 50 per cent of German apprenticeships are in the nuts and bolts of commerce itself, providing an essential common structure of understanding for anyone going into business.
Without similar glue to stick it together, the latest in a long line of vehicles for getting non-academic British teenagers on to a worthwhile career path may come apart before it leaves the workshop.
The Observer, 24 February 2008