30 October 2015 | By Sir Michael Wilshaw Community, Guest Column

Guest column: Sir Michael Wilshaw

Following the publication of Ofsted’s report into apprentices, Sir Michael Wilshaw challenges more businesses to get involved in improving the system

Why are we still in a situation where employers can’t find skilled workers locally? Why are so many local businesses still forced to look overseas for skilled labour? Why do only five per cent of youngsters enter into an apprenticeship at 16?

These unresolved questions are of such national concern that I commissioned my inspectors to undertake an in-depth survey on apprenticeship provision. The results were published in October in our report, Apprenticeships: developing skills for future prosperity.

Unfortunately the research confirmed what I and many others have long suspected – that despite a surge in the number of apprenticeships over the past eight years, very few have focused on the priorities that benefit employers or the economy. There are still not enough apprenticeships delivering advanced, professional skills in the sectors that need them most.

An apprenticeship should stand for high-quality training, designed to meet real business needs, delivered over a long period and regularly assessed by experts. It should be a passport to career progression for employees, and an opportunity for employers to improve their business.

However, much of the recent growth in apprenticeships has taken place in the service and retail sectors, where they are consistently failing to reach these standards. Too often “apprenticeship” is simply a label put on existing employment, to accredit existing skills. They are of little value to the individual or the company. Training is minimal, standards are poor and progress is rarely measured.

As I told the CBI in my speech to the West Midlands Education and Skills Conference recently, employers and providers involved in these poor-quality, low-level apprenticeships are wasting public funds. They are abusing the trust placed in them by government and apprentices to deliver valuable, meaningful training.

Addressing the weaknesses

I believe three parties are to blame for the current weaknesses in apprenticeship provision.

Firstly, secondary schools are not doing enough to promote apprenticeships to young people. Too few pupils really know what an apprenticeship is. And too many schools see them as the last resort for less academically gifted pupils. That attitude has to change.

Secondly, too many further education and skills providers have concentrated on offering dubious qualifications of little economic relevance, instead of the complex skills needed by employers.

And thirdly, too many employers are not engaging with schools and FE providers, or organising themselves effectively to make the apprenticeship system work.

The government’s ambition for three million new apprenticeships over the next five years is commendable but, without a very clear organisational structure around them, that ambition will not be met.

So my challenge to the CBI and to employers is to organise yourselves and take ownership of the situation. You can't wait for others to make it work. Get involved. Use your networks and knowledge to find solutions to the problem. Work with further education and skills providers to develop structures that can deliver high-quality apprenticeships locally, aimed at meeting local skills needs.

Local businesses should lead by example – sponsoring academies, engaging with the school curriculum and encouraging employees to get involved as school or college governors.