School Leaders Summit 2014

The Future of Education

October 16th 2014 | London

Andrew Adonis: It's time to master apprenticeships

Lord Adonis

As a former education minister, Andrew Adonis knows more than most when it comes to teaching the workforce of tomorrow. Ahead of his appearance at the School Leaders Summit, the pioneer of the academy school programme talks to Westminster Briefing about developing young people’s skills.

Given the fashion for describing the UK economy using vernacular more readily associated with hospitals, some wags might argue that apprenticeships are really just a sticking plaster when it comes to leaving the ‘intensive care’ of recession. It’s safe to say that Andrew Adonis thinks differently.

The Shadow Infrastructure Minister is adamant that vocational education and training programmes, supported to the hilt by government, are crucial to improving the technical skills so vital to boosting employment prospects and GDP.

A recent OECD report revealed that young people who left school at the first opportunity are less likely to find a job than counterparts who continue studying and Adonis believes this illustrates the need for more high-quality apprenticeships, provided by both the private and public sector.           

“The government itself needs to take the lead in the creation of youth apprenticeships. It has a terrible record in employing apprentices,” he says.

“Half of all government departments, when I asked a few months ago, had no apprentices whatsoever. BIS, the department responsible for skills and apprenticeships, has only one apprentice under the age of 21.”

There is a big issue in the education system about how you best provide for seriously disruptive or demotivated teenagers

According to Adonis, the employment record of a number of the department’s agencies should also be called into question. Parliamentary questions tabled by the Labour peer have shown that there are no apprentices working for the Land Registry, the Met Office and Companies House. 

“This needs to change: BIS can’t preach apprenticeships to the private sector if it’s not creating them itself,” says Adonis.

“We have a big, big problem in England, it’s now clear to me, of far too few youth apprenticeships and very poor quality. People talk about the private sector as being the cause of this problem but it’s now clear to me that the public sector is a big cause of this problem too and until the Government itself takes the lead in creating apprenticeships as an employer – and the largest employer in the country at that - it cannot expect the private sector to follow it.”   

The former frontbencher thinks that part of the solution to this problem – which he says has seen only 130,000 youth apprenticeships per annum made available to students under the age of 19, compared to the creation of around 300,000 undergraduate places a year - could come in the form of University Technical Colleges (UTCs).

UTCs provide full-time, technically orientated study for 14-18 year olds, with 45 scheduled to be up and running by 2015. The network is sponsored by 400 employers, with colleges allocating two days of the week to teaching practical skills and placing a real emphasis on work experience.

Adonis highlights the JCB Academy as an example of the potential of UTCs. Working with organisations such as Network Rail and Centrica, the centre has developed what he describes as a “pioneering” engineering diploma, with the aim of moving students towards apprenticeships of higher education.

Critics of the scheme claim that new UTCs are beginning to focus on ‘softer’ subjects such as sport and health, traditionally the preserve of further education colleges. However, Adonis points out that the need for technical skills spans a range of industries.

“I wouldn’t in any way underestimate the importance of UTCs servicing a range of technical skills,” he says.

“It is especially important that some of them provide engineering skills, because that is an area of acute national weakness, but they should also be providing skills that are poorly provided by existing educational providers. That includes digital media, production skills in the arts and media world, sports science and construction. ”

Adonis is quick to stress that this role enables UTCs and further education colleges (FECs) to comfortably coexist and complement each other, even allowing for the prospect of FECs recruiting at the age of 14.

“The emphasis on FE colleges has been on them being able to take on from the age of 14 those who are seriously disengaged from school. That is a very different proposition to 14 year olds who have a particular aptitude or interest in technical areas of study,” he says.

“There is a big issue in the education system about how you best provide for seriously disruptive or demotivated teenagers, particularly boys after the age of 16. FECs do good work in this area and they could do more.

“There is another big issue, which is how do we in areas of really serious technical skills start fostering provision from the age of 14 to 16? It could be that FECs could have a role to play alongside UTCs and indeed a number of FECs are sponsoring UTCs, who are based on their site. This isn’t a zero-sum question.”

This debate is sure to feature in the thinking behind Labour’s industrial policy review, which Adonis is leading. Due to be published next year, it will cover issues such as the operation of BIS, LEPs and apprenticeships.

One topic the review is unlikely to touch on is Adonis’ education. Educated at Kingham Hill School, a boarding school in Oxfordshire, he went on to study history at Keble College, Oxford. However, the former Financial Times journalist insists he would have considered going to a UTC, had the option been available during his teenage years.   

“I was a classic product of the education system in the 1970’s, in that I gave up maths at the age of 16 and did no sciences in the sixth form at all,” he says.

“Had I been to a UTC at the age of 14, I may not have made those mistakes.”

Twelve new UTCs are set to open in September, at around the time the National Curriculum is due to be published. It’s a fair to assume that the curriculum will hog the headlines, but if recent speculation is proved right, it will be interesting to see which initiative is filling column inches in years to come.