How do you take your coffee? Remember when it was a simple question? Before the flat white. Or a café mocha. Or a venti double shot half caff cappuccino. Whatever that is. Asking someone if they want a coffee is no longer a self-contained quick question but the start of a long litany of choices, options and variables. If coffee was regulated by the ESFA it would have a weighty guide and an accompanying FE Week webinar. And with it we have become a country of coffee snobs. Is that a hand roasted Peruvian Arabica? I though so; all those citrus top notes.

Apprenticeships, I fear, have gone much the same way as your favourite beverage. You need to know the detail, the combination of ingredients that distinguish between good, full flavour apprenticeship from the insipid, watered down programme that leaves the learner little better prepared for their future career than when they started.

So what should a well-crafted apprenticeship look like? For me, four characteristics distinguish a top-notch scheme from something unworthy of the name.

First, it’s a job. A new job. A job that wouldn’t have existed if it didn’t have its genesis in an apprenticeship. So no more upskilling programmes for company veterans; new jobs for new recruits.

Second, its about getting young people into work; starting them on a career path. Learning a craft, a skill. Let’s stop pretending a Senior Leader Master’s Degree Apprenticeship is an apprenticeship. It isn’t. It a funding grab by opportunistic providers who should know better. Level two and three of course, with some routes at level four but let’s stop there and end the crass reincarnation of MBAs as ‘apprenticeships’.

Third, it needs to be properly paid. If you want to take on an apprentice, be prepared to pay them at the same rate as any other person of their age. Let the minimum wage be that; the much lower apprenticeship wage places trainees in a position of dependency on family or debt that harms the prestige of the route.

Finally, be clear that there is real skill content and real training. And that means 20% off the job, no excuses. This, of course, isn’t a problem if the apprentice’s job role is new. If it’s replacing a previously non apprentice role, it’s a big deal. I’ve seen too many apprentices go through a training-lite, assessment heavy process that adds nothing to our cadre of skilled young people.

It’s a big ask. And controversial. Maybe, as with my coffee, I’ve become an apprenticeship snob. Many will take issue at my narrowing of the new apprenticeship order. Of course, it means letting go our volume driven participation targets; the 3m starts, which will clearly be missed, must go.

If we are to sell apprenticeships to the next generation of young people then we must take care to define and nurture a brand and a programme that belongs at the heart of our skills strategy.

So, then, how do you take your apprenticeships?

Gerry McDonald is Group Principal & CEO of New City College

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