January 23, 2011 10:52 pm

Skills reforms hark back to guild system

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Proposed reforms to the English apprenticeship system have been inspired by “a mix of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with just a bit of Vaughan Williams to add an English flavour”, according to the minister responsible.

John Hayes, the skills minister, cited Richard Wagner’s opera, in which the drama takes place in and around a guild of poets and musicians in the 16th century. He said the guild system was at the “heart of my thinking”.

He wants a hierarchy of titles for people with high-level technical skills, as still exists in academia. Mr Hayes aims to “build a system of fellows and masters” in vocational training.

In an interview with the Financial Times, he said: “We still hear the terms used. We think of master craftsmen and master-classes. The imagery is very much rooted in our consciousness. We’ve just taken away the public policy which matches the expectation.”

These ambitions extend existing government policy. Ministers announced last year that some individuals who complete a “level three” apprenticeship – equivalent in technical difficulty to A-levels – would be allowed to style themselves as “technicians”.

The return of guild terms is intended to raise the prestige of vocational skills. “We assumed for a long time that the only prowess that mattered was the prowess that you gained from academic accomplishment,” he said.

Mr Hayes is an enthusiast for traditional practical learning, and keeps a portrait of William Morris, a leader of the Victorian arts and crafts movement, on his desk. “I want us to understand the beauty of craft,” he said.

Sector skills councils, trade bodies that design professional qualifications, will take on the role of the guild. They will accredit a new range of higher skills qualifications and recognise companies that train employees to a high level. Such companies will be given the status of incubators of master craftsmen. Accreditation as an employer and trainer of highly skilled people could be a valuable marketing device, Mr Hayes said.

Drawing on his pre-parliamentary experience in the IT industry, the minister noted that his company boasted about employing “whatever number of Oracle-trained engineers” when it was bidding for work.

He was also still considering models for a “licence to practise”, including the idea of self-regulated schemes. These policies aim to raise the technical skills for workers in some sectors by forcing entrants into those trades to hold official accreditations.

A skills strategy paper, published in November, proposed such licences in fields where “clear professional standards will benefit an industry”. The government will fund more apprenticeships in the coming years, increasing the number of adult apprentices by 70,000 by 2014-15. This could bring the total number to 200,000.

Furthermore, Mr Hayes said: “We haven’t got definite figures yet, but we are hoping for more than 25,000 more 16 to 18-year-old apprentices.” This would be a significant rise: in 2008-09, about 100,000 under-19s started apprenticeships.

Of these, three-quarters were on schemes that led to “level two” qualifications, equivalent to good GCSE passes. No level two apprenticeships would lead to the “technician” title. Some level two qualifications, particularly the level two National Vocational Qualification, were not well regarded by employers.

Mr Hayes said: “There is a place for level two apprenticeships, but very much as a stepping stone to further progress . . . I want the expansion [of apprenticeships] to be focused around level three.”

EMA substitute to target poorest

Mr Hayes said the replacement for the £560m education maintenance allowance (EMA), which is being abolished, must be paid for out of “a very small amount of money”. He also said that the design of the replacement was still being debated.

“Obviously, we are still discussing [EMA],” said Mr Hayes. “I have argued very strongly that it is absolutely right that the least advantaged should not be worse off as a result of the changes.”

The benefit, which was paid to 16 to 18-year-olds who remain in full-time education from low-income families, is being abolished. It will be replaced with a scheme of about one-tenth the cost.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, which studied the effects of EMA, said “the costs of providing EMA were likely to be exceeded in the long run by the higher wages that its recipients would go to enjoy in future”.

“I am not unsympathetic to the arguments that have been made, but we live in very difficult times,” Mr Hayes said. “We can’t fund everything we would like to.”

He contrasted the current EMA system, which exists “without much stipulation about how that money is spent” against a “more cost-effective” process which would target the money on poorer learners who suffer high learning costs.

Travel costs are cited by many colleges as a particular problem for poor students – an impediment acknowledged by Mr Hayes. “A lot of my learners [in his Lincolnshire constituency] have to travel a long way . . . to access learning,” he said.

Mr Hayes said the government will establish an all-age careers advice service as part of its education bill, due for release this week.

“Better-off young people gain a lot of advice through familial networks and social networks, so creating good quality independent advice is important in delivering social mobility [for poor children without access to those networks]”, he said.

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