Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Yes, Minister?: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Yes, Minister?: Feature

Article excerpt

As National Apprenticeship Week comes to an end, Stephen Exley talks to young people who have bypassed the old boy network and found their way into the corridors of power by becoming apprentices to MPs.

Between August and October 2012, 152,000 people started an apprenticeship. Andrew Hill was one of them. What sets him apart him, however, is that the softly spoken 19-year-old Welshman is arguably the most influential apprentice of all.

After finishing school last summer, he spotted a vacancy to be an apprentice to an MP. "I thought it sounded brilliant, really," he says. "I was dead set on this instead of uni."

It was only when he was asked to attend an interview that he realised who he could end up working for. "I thought it was just going to be a backbencher," Hill explains. "I was pretty taken aback when I found out it was a minister."

And not just any minister. Hill was being interviewed for a position working in the parliamentary office of skills minister Matthew Hancock, the man responsible for the entire apprenticeship programme.

Not surprisingly for a self-confessed parliamentary history obsessive, Hill impressed at interview. He now holds the most illustrious of titles: the apprenticeship minister's apprentice.

Every second Thursday, Hill joins a handful of other apprentices to study for a level 3 NVQ in business and administration. The rest of the time he spends working for the minister from his office overlooking the River Thames. He laughs, shaking his head with disbelief. "My mum keeps asking me to take a photo."

Hancock was "sold" the idea of taking on an apprentice by fellow Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who became the first politician to hire one back in 2010. Halfon then teamed up with the charity New Deal of the Mind and Westminster Kingsway College to create the Parliamentary Academy, the first apprentice school for the Palace of Westminster.

While MPs have traditionally relied on unpaid interns to help staff their offices, attitudes in Westminster are slowly beginning to change. In 2011, Nick Clegg spoke out against Westminster internships being handed out just because parents "whisper in the ear" of the right person at the golf club. Anyone carrying out a work placement, the deputy prime minister insisted, deserved "proper remuneration".

At the same time, increased political focus on the apprenticeship programme since the coalition came to power has led to the number of new apprentices almost doubling from 279,000 in 2009-10 to 520,000 in 2011- 12.

As a result, a small but growing number of politicians have decided to hire an apprentice for their own office. A survey - conducted by Hill for TES - revealed that more than 20 MPs have now employed, or are planning to hire, an apprentice. The programme is even expanding to the House of Lords.

Crucially, the Parliamentary Academy asks MPs to pay their apprentices the national minimum wage of Pounds 6.19 an hour, equating to just over Pounds 10,000 during the 12-month training programme. This opens up the opportunity to 16- to 24-year-olds who cannot afford to work for free.

Culture change

"It's a great scheme," Halfon says. "If every MP - and there are 650 - had an apprentice, it would transform lives. I would love that. The culture in Parliament is that people get internships through connections, because they are people with family money. That's just wrong. This will change the culture of Parliament."

Halfon, MP for Harlow in Essex, is now on his third apprentice. The role involves tasks such as research, completing paperwork and keeping up with Halfon's correspondence. His latest recruit, 19-year-old Aaron Farrell, has developed another specialism: giving tours of Parliament.

"Aaron knows more than me," Halfon says. "He walks with Harlow residents round the (House of) Commons and tells them all about the statues and the history; he knows it brilliantly. He was quite shy when he started but he does a lot of speaking and has gained a lot of knowledge. …

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