Kevin Dewey Oct11

Written by Past Master Kevin Dewey

Fig 1 - An indenture certificate dating back to 1857, binding Patrick Meehan to William Vernon and Ludolf Mellin as apprentice for 5 years. Patrick amongst other things promises not to ‘haunt taverns, inns or ale houses’. In return he would have received a training at the ‘Goulburn Chronical and Southern Advertiser’ in New South Wales for a princely, then sum of 7/6p per week for the first year rising to 25/- in the fifth year.

Apprenticeships — History

The Statute of Artificers, introduced by the parliament of Elizabeth I in 1563, made it illegal for anyone to “exercise any art, mystery or occupation now used or occupied within the realm of England and Wales except he shall have been brought up therein seven years at the least as an apprentice”.

Before the introduction of this legislation, apprenticeships were solely regulated by the London guilds of trades and craftsmen, including the Stationers’ Company.

An apprentice would learn his trade over a period of years — often seven, but it could be longer or shorter than this — with his master being responsible for his board, lodging and clothing as well as teaching.

The 1563 Act was abolished in 1814, as the popularity of apprenticeships waned “due to conditions in factories and exploitation of young apprentices”.

Fig 2 – The Stationers’ Company’s last apprentice, Henry Tann (right), bound to his Master bookbinder and teacher, Dr Douglas East JP in 2010


Apprenticeships continued however in many trades, particularly those which required practical skills. According to the Institute of Directors there were around 340,000 apprenticeships a year started in the early twentieth century.

By the mid-1960’s — “the high water mark for apprenticeship in Britain” according to the IoD — roughly 35 per cent of male school leavers aged 15 to 17 went on to do an apprenticeship.

The macroeconomic changes that followed the decimation of the UK’s manufacturing base in the 70’s and 80’s caused, by 1990 the number of apprentices to drop to around 53,000. In addition, education was rapidly changing with only 7% of 17 year olds being in full time education in 1950 rising to 76% by 2010. The fall in apprenticeships came despite the launch, in 1964, of UK Industry Training Boards (ITBs), which were intended to ensure there were sufficient numbers of apprenticeships to avoid skill shortages in traditional skilled occupations and the emerging technology sectors. ITB’s were a monumental failure generally and were abolished in 1974.

The ‘second coming’ - Modern Apprenticeships and how the educationalists diluted the movement:

Vocational education in our schools reflects the unequal status given to different parts of the curriculum. Courses are seen as very much ‘second class’ reflecting a bias toward traditional academic subjects. You can trace this back to the 1944 Education Act when the technical part of the tripartite system (Grammar, Secondary Modern and Technical) was to all intent and purposes "still born". Technical education was never given the status afforded to the academic subjects. It was always expected that middle class children would go into the professions or university and bright working class children having got into grammar school would do the same. Fast forward to the post 1988 era and schools shamelessly used easier to pass course work based vocational subjects to enhance their league table positions. Michael Gove’s reforms put an end to that in 2015. Vocational subjects are now more rigorous but still seen as "second class" notably by the university educated teaching profession.

By 2010 with 76% of school leavers enjoying a university education, its status has been elevated beyond reason and far too many young people are wasting their time and amassing debt, doing irrelevant degrees at poor "universities" with little chance of applying their degree to any job they subsequently do or likely to obtain. The Higher Education Statistics Agency data reveals significant variation in university performance on retention. In 2014-15, London Metropolitan University had the highest dropout rate in the country, with nearly one in five (18.9 per cent) of young first degree entrants failing to stay on beyond year one.

It was followed by the University of Bolton (17 per cent); the University of the Highlands and Islands (14.4 per cent); the University of the West of Scotland (14.2 per cent); and University Campus Suffolk (13.6 per cent). Whereas the top Russell Group universities have a dropout rate of less than 2 percent. 

Equally of concern is that the dropout rate for young students from disadvantaged backgrounds was rising even more rapidly. It stood at 8.2 per cent for the 2013-14 cohort, up 0.5 percentage point year-on-year across the university estate.

The Major Government redefined a host of Polytechnics as Universities, when the focus should perhaps have been on providing specialist high quality vocational degrees or other qualifications. A great example of a ‘new’ vocational university is Ravensbourne on the Greenwich peninsula which specialises in computing, media and graphic arts. 97.2% of their graduates leave with a job. The answer is a good broad and balanced curriculum where children become numerate and literate and " civilised " (as in civil and well rounded people) and where specialist useful and relevant vocational programmes are introduced at 14+ leading to apprenticeships or vocational based further education from 16+ for students with non-academic skills. Successive Government's focus on addressing educational disadvantage that results from social disadvantage is however commendable because class still matters. The Brexit vote partly reflects working class community’s protests for being at the very bottom of the ‘educational snobbery pile’.

A huge lost opportunity given the progress made by our northern European competitors in vocational education and the resulting strength in their manufacturing base and their positive balance of payments; the UK’s deficit is currently running at £30 billion.

Modern Apprenticeships (MAs), first announced by then-Chancellor Kenneth Clarke in November 1993, were designed to reverse the decline in apprenticeship numbers and provide a boost to work-based training. MAs were launched in 1994, and fully up and running by September 1995.

(Kenneth) now Lord Baker has been almost single handedly, been blazing a trail for secondary vocational education through the Baker Dearing Trust, supporting the formation of a network of 39, to date, University Technical Colleges (UTC’s) around the country. A great exemplar, but yet to be embraced by mainstream educationalists.

By the end of 1998, according to a House of Commons Library, almost 250,000 people in England and Wales had started an MA. However, MAs were continually dogged by concerns over quality, and went through numerous reforms over the years. These included the introduction, in the early 2000s, of frameworks setting out the minimum standards required of each apprenticeship, and, in 2004, dropping the word ‘modern’ from the scheme’s name.

Then in 2009, the National Apprenticeship Service was launched to oversee delivery of apprenticeships.

Figure 3 - Apprenticeship starts 2008 to 2013 

apprenticeship stats

The political classes are never slow to ‘tinker’ with legislation that they do not like, not invented here or is not working – the latter being the least likely for action! In 2012 the Richard Review, commissioned by the Government and led by former Dragons’ Den star Doug Richard, recommended making apprenticeships more employer-led and called for employers to pay providers directly for apprenticeship training.

The Government’s response was to introduce, in October 2013, new Trailblazer apprenticeship standards designed by employers, to ensure apprentices develop the skills actually needed by industry, which seemed like a good step forward!

The idea was that these would be co-funded, with the government paying up to two-thirds of the cost with employers responsible for the balance.

The first of these new standards were approved for use in November 2014. The Paper Industry has an approved apprenticeship scheme in Paper Technology leading to Level 2 and 3 BTEC qualifications. The Printing Industry is close to getting its scheme approved. It also has an existing range of BTEC validated apprenticeship qualifications, run by the BPIF, in a range of skills from management to production and warehousing skills with some 600 people on the courses currently and on a rising trend.

Generally, apprenticeship numbers have continued to grow. The coalition government oversaw 2.4m starts, and in 2015 the new Conservative government pledged to create 3m new apprenticeship starts by 2020.

The future

From April 2017, large employers will pay the apprenticeship levy, set at 0.5 per cent of an employer’s pay bill over £3m.

It’s estimated that it will raise around £3bn for apprenticeship training with employers able to access the fund, topped up by HMG by 10%, for approved young people training. Thus, the scheme for an employer with an entry level payroll of £3million, probably employing around say 150 people, will collect £15,000 through the PAYE scheme from employers add £1,500 to it and then allow that employer to claim back £16,500 towards training. Not surprisingly there is a huge degree of scepticism that this is a cost effective way of encouraging meaningful training by those who don’t want to do it. The sums that a large employer pays through their levy and can claw back are frankly derisory and with probably cost more to administer than benefit training. Questions still remain about how the measure will be implemented and how non-levy payers, employing less than 150 people, will access levy funds but there is clear intention in the legislation for micro employers and SME’s to have access to funding with a 10% contribution.

It is probably too late to realistically change the tide for traditional manufacturing in the UK and those that have survived have done so by virtue of high levels of training and development already in place. Our future is in innovation, technology and further enhancing our services sector. These all requires a high standard of education at primary and secondary level which are being delivered. Twenty years ago just over a quarter of 16 year olds achieved five A* to C grades at GCSE. Now the figure is over two thirds, with much harder standards.

This still leaves, after retakes and those that enter further education or training, a rump of 16 – 18 year olds, some 8% of the cohort in June 2016 according to the DfE, as not being in education, employment or training (NEET’s). The figure for 19 to 24 year olds rises to a chilling 13.9% once education and training drops away and immigrants start coming into the statistics. There is small encouragement in the statistics showing a fall in NEET’s since 2010 as employment generally has improved but no one can argue that we have a satisfactory position with so many young people leaving full time education and failing to find a job or be trained.

This underclass represents a huge waste of talent and cost to the community and is a potential threat to the stability of, if not the country, the regions where they live – notably the north of England. The personal tragedy of being unemployed and in a life without seeming purpose of course is not measured, but is the biggest scandal of all.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the outstanding retiring Chief Inspector of Schools, quoted in his valedictory interview in ‘The Times’ on 3 September 2016 said ‘Vocational Education is a disaster in this country at the moment’. He has done much to improve education in England and should be rightly proud of the gains in academic standards and the attendant improvement to social mobility. He has admitted that this has been at the expense of vocational education, which has to start in our schools. It was pleasing to note that he is to spend some of his retirement working with University Technical Colleges.


Secondary schools must improve their vocational offering but they cannot do it unaided. Most teachers have never worked in business and thus have little understanding of what industry needs.

Industry should partner with local secondary schools to have input into the curriculum, provide one to one mentors, work experience opportunities, job swaps for teachers and middle management in businesses and careers talks. Other than time, this does not have a cost for the business but has a potential upside of promoting it within the community and encouraging young people to explore their potential for employment in the real world.

Vocational education cannot be delivered in a bubble as it is mostly now. Businesses have no excuse for complaining of the quality of entrants, when they can be involved in shaping the ‘product’ that comes to them for employment. They will be welcomed with open arms by the educational community and find the time invested to have a huge return.

In 2014 the Stationers’ Company became a sponsor of a 1600 pupil academy in Eltham south east London now called Stationers’ Crown Woods Academy, one of many livery company’s involved with education and training. Members of the company mentor students at 15+ and 17+ which has been hugely valued by the students and the staff. Members give careers talks and visits to businesses have been arranged. As the relationships develop both parties are keen to explore other ways to expose students to the range of industries the Company supports.

In November this year the Company with donate some £400,000 to the Academy for building and equipping a brand new Digital Media Centre containing teaching laboratories and areas for students to explore the possibilities of digital media across industry and academic related projects, all linking into national examinations including BTEC qualifications. The centre will support the new digital media curriculum, which will underpin all teaching. Stationers have been closely involved with this project and have aspirations to offer this throughout the UK. Early days, but we have set a high bar as we want to show what a partnership between industry and academia can achieve.

W Edwards Deming, the guru of Total Quality Management said ‘you don’t have to do this, survival is not compulsory’. If not a matter of ‘survival’, engaging some more of our young people in vocational training, whilst still at school, to capture their enthusiasm for work before it is too late, seems to the writer like ‘necessity’ as a minimum. 

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