Five Years of the Modern Apprenticeship Initiative: An Assessment against Continental European Models [1]

Article excerpt

Hilary Steedman [*]

Government has promised that Britain will build a vocational route based on apprenticeship to match that found in the rest of Europe. However, judged on the first five years of Modern Apprenticeship, every important aspect of apprenticeship in Britain will need to be strengthened and improved if the government's aspirations are to be realised.

'Beyond compulsory school age, we are determined to build a coherent and high-quality vocational education and training system that is the envy of the world.' [Opportunity and Skills in the Knowledge-Driven Economy, a final statement on the work of the National Skills Task Force from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, 2001.]

Introduction

Earlier this year, the government gave a commitment to build a vocational route to high-level skills and qualifications in Britain. This commitment arose from recognition that Britain did not have the coherent and transparent vocational route to intermediate and high level skills which, in other countries, had contributed to raising post-16 educational achievement. Evidence of widespread skill shortages and skill deficiencies at the intermediate (craft, technician and associate professional) level revealed in the audit carried out by the National Skills Task Force (DfEE, 2000) was a further spur to action. Apprenticeship was identified by government as the institution of choice to form the backbone of the renewed drive to promote vocational education and training for young people post-16. [2]

It therefore seems appropriate to try to spell out more explicitly the standards that would need to be reached if aspiration is to become reality. With that objective, this paper reviews the framework elements of apprenticeship provision and its implementation in those countries where apprenticeship is successfully established. These features are seen as constituting a benchmark against which the British counterpart -- Modern Apprenticeship (MA) -- can be assessed. The extent to which MA in Britain shares the characteristics common to the benchmark countries allows us to assess how far Britain has come in establishing a 'world-class' system. The countries chosen for the study are the German-speaking 'dual-system' countries -- Austria, Germany and Switzerland -- and France, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The German-speaking dual-system countries have a strong apprenticeship tradition which is continuing to attract large numbers of young people and employers to engage in apprenticeship across all sectors of the economy. In these countries at least two thirds of all young people embark on -- and the great majority complete -- an apprenticeship training.

France has a more restricted apprenticeship tradition; between 10 and 15 per cent of young people enter apprenticeship, but numbers have grown very rapidly in recent years and this makes France an interesting case for study.

Like the German-speaking dual system countries, Denmark has a long tradition of apprenticeship. A rolling programme of change and reform has been in place for the past twenty years and the proportion of young people entering apprenticeship has remained roughly constant. Currently around a third of young people in Denmark gain a vocational qualification through apprenticeship.

The Netherlands has also restructured vocational education following new legislation in 1996. Apprenticeship numbers, which had been declining in the 1980s, reversed that decline in the 1990s and are continuing to increase. Currently around 30 per cent of young people in the Netherlands enter an apprenticeship programme. For comparison, the percentage of a young age cohort starting apprenticeship in England and Wales is around 9 per cent for Modern Apprenticeship and 11 per cent for (the more elementary level) National Traineeships.

The next section examines standards set by leading nations. …