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Apprenticeship and vocational learning Alison Fuller, University of Southampton Lorna Unwin, Institute of Education, University of London

Throughout the world, apprenticeship is recognised as a valuable model for vocational learning for young people. But in today’s fast-changing economic landscape, it faces major challenges. Apprenticeship should be a major part of the UK’s post-16 provision, but much of what is currently called ‘apprenticeship’ fails both young people and employers. The government- funded programme of ‘Apprenticeships’ takes many forms, reflecting the diverse nature of around 100 occupational sectors. It is not a course or a qualification. Some apprenticeships are highly prized, selective, and lead to well-paid careers. The engineering sector requires at least the same levels of attainment as are needed to enter the sixth form or some degree courses, with GCSE grade C and above in Maths, English and Science or Technology plus extensive interviews and cognitive and practical aptitude tests for entry into apprenticeship programmes. Engineering apprenticeships also last for a minimum of three years and can lead to HNC/HND (level 4), thus providing a foundation for university study.

At the other end of the spectrum are what we term “so-called apprenticeships”. They demand little if anything in the way of entry requirements, and provide restricted opportunities for learning, with no foundation for progression beyond level 2. This is the social inclusion approach inherited from the youth training schemes brought in to cope with rising youth unemployment in the late 1970s. These types of apprenticeship tend to be found in service sectors. But the absence of a robust regulatory framework means that both good and bad provision can be found in all sectors.

Unlike many other European countries, where apprentices are only found in organisations with trained trainers, in the UK virtually any employer can be involved. This corruption of the concept of apprenticeship means that for many young people the experience provides no added value in terms of leaving school or college to enter the labour market. This is confirmed by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC)’s statistics on attainment, which show that the majority of participants do not achieve the set qualifications.

In our research, we developed the concept of an ‘expansive-restrictive’ continuum to capture the range of apprenticeship types in the UK.16 At the expansive end are organisations which see apprenticeship as being important to both the young person and the goals of the business. At the restrictive end are organisations interested only in how quickly they can turn apprentices into productive workers. Expansive organisations see apprentices as having dual identity for the duration of their apprenticeship, as learners and as workers.

Much of the 14 -19 White Paper (DfES, 2005a), like the Tomlinson report (2004), is situated within what we call the educational paradigm. Here


For more information see Fuller and Unwin (2003a and 2003b).


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