Celebrating National Apprenticeship Week, established by Labour in Government



This coming week – Monday 11 to Friday 15 March – is National Apprenticeship Week. To mark the event, on Tuesday we are holding a debate on apprenticeships in the House of Commons.

On the eve of National Apprenticeship Week Labour has a record to be proud of. In Government we more than quadrupled apprenticeship starts from a woeful 65,000 under the Major Government in 1996/1997 to 280,000 starts in our final year in office. 

From the 2012 Olympics to Building Schools for the Future projects up and down the country, we linked the creation of apprenticeship placements to public procurement across a number of Government departments. We set up a dedicated National Apprenticeship Service to support and expand apprenticeships. And it was, of course, Labour in Government which established National Apprenticeship Week in 2008.

But, despite all this, as Ed Miliband made clear in his speech on the economy in Bedford three weeks ago and in his Conference speech, we need to do more. Notwithstanding our achievements, two thirds of large employers do not offer any apprenticeships at all in Britain today – this is unacceptable. There are not nearly enough apprenticeships being offered in the public sector given the billions spent on procurement. And, let’s face it, though employees with vocational and technical skills are as important to the UK’s economy as those who have been to university, we do not afford parity of esteem to non-academic qualifications in this country. This all needs to change.

Why? Because, in addition to ensuring that wealth is fairly shared and that we preserve the institutions that bind us together, the third central limb of the One Nation vision Ed set out for Labour at Conference was that everyone should have a stake – that must include those who do not go on to university – and employers are crying out for people with technical and vocational qualifications.

The Tory-led Government massively over plays its achievements in this area since coming to office in May 2010. Their strategy has been to go for quantity over quality and they have engaged in statistical trickery on a grand scale, which masks the reality of an apprenticeship drive that has stalled.  For example, my opposite number Vince Cable goes around the country boasting that he has created more than one million apprenticeships but much of this has been achieved through re-badging Labour’s Train to Gain scheme as apprenticeships.

The reality that lies behind ministers’ rhetoric is different from what they tell us. In the last academic year the number of apprenticeships for 16 to 18 year olds has fallen in four out of nine of England’s nine regions and is down by 9,200 overall. The vast bulk of additional apprenticeships since this Government came to office have come in the post-25 age range. As it became clear that the number of apprenticeships lasting less than a year was accelerating in 2011 with their obsession with quantity above all else, we and stakeholders’ in the skills sector had to force Ministers to adopt a one year minimum duration for apprenticeships in 2012 in order to protect their quality.

Shockingly, the Government’s recent apprenticeship pay survey shows that one in five respondents said they had received no training during their apprenticeship, with 5% saying they received no pay during their apprenticeship. And, it is worth noting the Department for Business Innovation & Skills – itself responsible for the apprenticeship policy – has just one apprentice aged under 19 in a department of over 2,500 staff. This is a disgrace.

What would a future Labour government do? Skills are a central part of the One Nation Industrial Strategy we are developing. At Conference we announced the creation of a new tech baccalaureate – it was so good the Government has since adopted it. We also said we would require people to learn maths and English up to 18.

With regard to apprenticeships, we want to put employers in the driving seat in providing these: they will get control of the money for training and set the standards; in return we will expect them to provide many more apprenticeship places. We are consulting business through our Skills Taskforce on how to make this happen.

We will use public procurement to boost numbers – so if you are a company bidding for a public sector contract worth over £1 million, we will expect you to provide apprenticeships in order to win that contract.  In particular, we have pledged to use the procurement dispensed on the HS2 project to create 33,000 new apprenticeships. This all builds on the apprenticeship plan launched last year by Labour’s shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden.

Needless to say Labour councils have been leading the way using procurement to boost apprenticeships, from Newham to Sheffield, Leeds to Manchester. To get a sense of our approach on skills if we won power, just look at what these local authorities are doing.

So we can be proud we established National Apprenticeship Week in 2008 and we will celebrate it this coming week. Not for the sake of it but because if we are serious about building a new economic model out of the crash of 2008/9, that means overhauling our skills ecosystem – more and better quality apprenticeships are central to that.