Apprenticeships, politics and the sick joke of VQ Day

Apprenticeships are the quiet success story of UK skills.

Numbers have doubled over the past decade, according to ministers, with 184,000 starts last year, and a 63% completion rate (which is apparently good).

And they are popular for the right reason. They give a combination of learning and workplace experience lacking from most vocational training. In other words they provide what both employees and employers want: skills and not qualifications. (For an excellent critical view, though, see Mick Fealty’s piece in the Daily Telegraph.)

There’s just one problem. Success has lead to every chance of apprenticeships becoming a political football, oh, and a rather sick piece of branding.

It all kicked off on Wednesday, with Labour announcing “a ‘universal offer’ of Government support for continued education or training”.

According to the DUIS press release:

Those young people who are interested in beginning an apprenticeship, will be eligible for an ‘Apprenticeship Credit’. This is a voucher to pay for the training that can be used to approach an employer to encourage them to offer an apprenticeship.

A good initiative, but Wednesday’s press puff coincided with VQ Day, “a celebration of vocational achievements around the UK”.

Ghastly.

Don’t get me wrong. We should celebrate success, especially of vocational qualifications, which this country badly needs. But VQ Day? That’s just sick. The deliberate attempt to put this in the same category as VE Day and VJ Day is a sick miscalculation. And no, it’s not a clumsy mistake; the site refers to ‘VQ Heroes’ and – particularly unpleasantly – has a ‘Roll of Honour’.

Conservative leader David Cameron, of course, is a PR professional, so had his ammunition ready and counter attacked on Wednesday morning with the message that apprenticeships had failed (which doesn’t really stand up) and that the Conservatives would create 100,000 apprenticeships. According to reporting in the BBC:

the initiative would help to build family and social stability…. Tory leader David Cameron says his party would offer small and medium businesses in England £2,000 for every person who completed an apprenticeship.

Compared with the VQ Day initiatives and John Denham’s pledge of an ‘Apprenticeship Credit’, these few words are a PR coup: no fluffy branding, a solid number (two grand vs. a voucher of some sort), plus a clear connection between apprenticeships and social order.

It looks like there is every chance that apprenticeships’ success will mean they suffer the same initiative overload that has been forced on education, but in the run-up to the next election, the score in this particular skirmish is definitely:

Labour 0 – Conservatives 1

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