Academic accomplishment is not the be-all and end-all
Having been asked to become chairman of the All-Party Group on Craft Skills, I will take the chance to emphasise the value of practical skills and their significance for all of us.
The mapping of heritage crafts, which I initiated as Minister for Skills, revealed figures far beyond any of the most optimistic assumptions. In England alone, heritage crafts have a £10.8billion turnover with almost 210,000 practitioners. The study found that the sector has the potential to grow by 12 per cent over ten years.
Despite the evidence, some of the doubters still claim that apprenticeships are of less economic value than Higher Education. Yet a study by KPMG showed that people with Level 2 - GCSE level - apprenticeships earn, on average, around £73,000 more over their lifetime and people with an advanced apprenticeship make around £105,000 more.
As Government minister, I championed apprenticeships, with consequent growth in their number and quality. By 2016, Higher (level 4) apprenticeships had increased by 11,000, meaning over 30,000 people were undertaking such apprenticeships.
Subsequently, the Government decided to introduce a training levy so that companies play their part in delivering a new generation of skilled apprentices. We were on course to create three million apprenticeships by 2020, yet, at the current rate, we will not hit that target.
Funding apprenticeships through a training levy is a good idea, but at present it’s not working as well as it could. Apprenticeships are about businesses as well as individuals and the decline in apprenticeship starts since the Levy was introduced suggests that businesses need more support to ensure that funds are utilised in an optimal way. Dame Judith Hackett, the chair of SEMTA, concludes that ‘the levy is complex, companies are unable to access their funds and many simply view it as another tax on business.’
Perhaps Dame Judith’s criticisms are explained by what colleges and employers tell me - they say that the Institute for Apprenticeships is unresponsive and bureaucratic. Continuing to believe that sector bodies have a role in helping business get the most out of their training, I propose reinvesting in the idea of guilds, so allowing those who know best to define appropriate standards and accredit trainees.
More broadly, the government must have the confidence to articulate, once again, the case for practical learning. We have to broadcast the message that academic accomplishment is not the be-all and end-all - apprenticeships offer a debt-free alternative, enabling a tangible vocational skill of practical use to be taught. The rebirth of apprenticeships should be part of a wider mission to rebuild our appreciation of craft and the values it embodies. We must elevate the practical.