Apprenticeship trailblazers

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Matthew Hancock speaks at the Voice of Apprenticeships Conference, outlining a new round of apprenticeship trailblazers and updated guidance.

Thanks Ben [Pike, Managing Director, QA Apprenticeships]. It’s a pleasure to be back and to see this year’s event - and National Apprenticeships Week - packing an even bigger punch than last year.

There’s a lot we can be proud of.

A record 868,700 people in apprenticeships.

The number of apprenticeships up over 30% over the same period.

And applications are up - by a massive 48% - with a big increase in young women applying. And under the statistics, each are giving extra opportunity.

I’ve been boosting those figures by taking on my very own apprentice.

My first apprentice, Andrew Hill, completed his placement in December. I was sorry to say goodbye but proud to see how far he’d come.

Blossoming from a shy teenager to a confident young professional who said exactly the right thing when the Prime Minister asked what I’m like as a boss.

Thanks Andrew – a job well done.

This year, the applications to be my apprentice were so good I took on 2. Beth and Michelle are doing a terrific job supporting me in my role as local MP.

At BIS my officials are road-testing the very reforms they’ve been working on. We’ve got an apprentice working alongside us and are about to take on a trainee.

The Civil Service now has an apprentice fast stream alongside the traditional graduate fast stream.

So the young people at the heart of these reforms are now at the heart of government.

Keeping us focused and fired up. Reminding us of the hopes and dreams at stake behind those figures.

But while politicians like me get to claim the credit, the progress we’ve made is down to you.

It’s your ambition and tenacity that mean we’re seeing ever more employers and young people reap the rewards of apprenticeships.

So on behalf of this government: a huge and heartfelt thanks for all your efforts.

But now is not the time to take our foot off the gas.

We need to make sure the supply of places keeps up with demand. Step up the drive for quality as well as quantity.

And we need apprenticeships doing more than ever to give more young people the chance to realise their ambitions in a fast-changing global economy.

That’s why need we more businesses to champion brilliant apprenticeships that become as fiercely coveted as a place at one of our top universities.

Today I want to tell you that this government is backing you all the way to make that happen.

How we’re putting you – employers - in the driving seat to lift standards and transform apprenticeships so they become truly world class.

How, for the first time, we’re putting you in charge of funding. And supporting you to make the changes you tell us are needed to help your businesses grow.

The challenge

The challenges we face are well-known.

We’re competing in a global race where the link between education and economic success has never been more important.

Yet as we know, too many of our young people are leaving education ill-prepared for the world of work.

Lacking the right skills, especially decent maths and English…

Or the right attributes – good communication, self-motivation, confidence and character.

Vocational education, more than any other, is meant to bridge this gap between schools and business.

But too many of our young people were left without the skills to realise their potential.

This has been confirmed by one international comparison after another.

Take the recently published PISA tests…

Or the OECD’s adult skills survey – which found the UK is unique in failing to equip today’s school leavers with better maths and English skills than their grandparents.

Or recent OECD findings that even our richest pupils are being beaten in maths by poorer children in Shanghai and Singapore.

None of which will come as much surprise to employers struggling with recruitment.

A recent study by McKinsey found that around a quarter of employers had left entry-level vacancies unfilled and that a third had lost out on business opportunities because they couldn’t find recruits with the right skills.

This is at a time when youth unemployment, though thankfully falling, remains far too high.

So all the figures, all the feedback - whether from international comparisons or the testimony of employers and young people themselves - they all say the same thing: our education system isn’t delivering and needs reform.

It’s failing to equip young people with the skills employers want. This hits employers’ bottom line, harms our country’s ability to pay its way in the world, and worst of all hits the prospects of millions.

The opportunity

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

We can and must do much better, raising aspirations across the board, so that every child is stretched and inspired to achieve, regardless of background. So all can reach their potential.

How? By increasing the rigour and responsiveness of the skills system.

We’re taking this approach with academic and vocational education, so they’re united by excellence and prestige rather than divided by them.

So that education and employers come together and get young people ready for the world of work.

Vocational education has an especially vital role to play in this respect.

For too long, weak qualifications mushroomed under a political culture that wasn’t honest about what they were worth.

Letting down both the students taking them and the employers who were left to pick up the pieces.

So in reforming vocational education, we’re zeroing in on rigour and responsiveness as never before.


Rigour means expecting high standards across the board.

We’re transforming qualifications, removing the poorest from league tables. And working with employers and others to develop top calibre qualifications like the new Tech Levels, a high quality alternative to A Levels; first announced in December.

These, together with a core maths qualification and an extended project, will count towards the new TechBacc measure – an ambitious benchmark for the brightest students.

We’re also making sure that young people who don’t get at least a grade C or above in GCSE English and maths - the bare minimum employers expect - will have to continue studying these subjects to 18. Failure is no longer good enough.

And we’ve introduced traineeships for young people who need extra support to prepare for work.

These combine high quality work experience, training in the attitude and skills employers value and the core disciplines of English and maths.

They’re already filling a vital gap.

Helping young people move from education into employment and, indeed, on to apprenticeships where they can learn and develop. We expect many trainees to follow this route.

They can be confident they’ve made a good choice.

With our reforms to drive up quality, apprenticeships are truly taking off – through tougher standards, especially in English and maths, grading throughout, more assessments at the end, and a requirement for apprenticeships to last a minimum of 12-months.

With household names and new industries alike embracing them – and, increasingly, taking the lead to reinvent this historic tradition for the 21st century.


As you know, some of our biggest businesses and trade bodies - and crucially, many of the smaller firms that supply them - have been at the forefront of these reforms to apprenticeships.

Trailblazers across 8 sectors – that include BAE, the National Grid, Cisco, Jaguar Land Rover, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Nestle, the Royal Society of Chemistry and Santander - are quite literally rewriting the rulebook.

Condensing hundreds of pages of complex, messy frameworks to a 2-side description of the skills, knowledge and attitude employees need to demonstrate in a particular industry. And how they should be assessed, whether through written tests, practical observations or interviews.

Shorter, clearer, better standards written by employers for employers against which they can easily measure themselves.

Expressed in language they can understand, drawing on international expertise to match the world’s best.

We’re publishing standards for these first 8 trailblazers today alongside details of the next wave of trailblazers who will follow in their footsteps.

Delivered in just 4 months, they’ve been conceived entirely by employers: employers who are telling us what apprenticeships should do and how they should do it.

This seems blindingly obvious now, but in the past, unbelievably, it was done the other way round.

So we are ending the maze-like systems that were often a mystery to the customers: the very businesses whose buy-in was so critical to their success.

Of course, there’s much more to still do.

The next challenge will be for the first trailblazers to make these reforms a reality on the ground, but seeing the pivotal role that employers are taking gives me great hope.

They’ve certainly set a blistering pace for the next 29 trailblazers announced today by the Prime Minister.

Spanning sectors from accountancy to aviation, nursing to retail, these too include small businesses and sector specialists as well as some big names – Tata Steel, John Lewis, British Airways, BMW.

I can’t wait to see what they achieve.

But while it’s great to see businesses raising standards in this way, this work can only have a real impact if the funding follows the best training.

There can surely be no better way of ensuring education is responsive than putting money into the hands of employers.

They can then decide which training best meets their needs and buy it - providing a boost for the best and encouraging others to raise their game.

These changes and our decision to route apprenticeship funding through an HMRC system were announced in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

We’ll be launching a consultation shortly on the details.

Whatever we decide on needs to be straightforward and accessible to businesses of all sizes.

So I want to hear from you.


Because opportunities like this - to reboot apprenticeships and transform vocational education don’t come along often.

There are more apprentices today, working for more employers and in more sectors, than ever before.

And with businesses moving centre-stage as never before, apprenticeships are better than ever.

More rigorous, more responsive, more ambitious.

Helping nail, once and for all, the mismatch between the skills employers want and those young people have to offer.

Taking vocational education to a new level where it becomes a badge of pride rather than a mumbled apology.

And helping employers tap into the vast reservoir of talent we have in this country.

To build a high-quality workforce and maximise their productivity, now and for the future.

And to make the changes that are needed to put us in pole position as a country to compete and take full advantage of the growing recovery.

So I urge businesses to get involved wherever possible.

The National Apprenticeship Service is on hand to help and advise.

And there’s government help for those who want to develop and run their training in-house – as around 100 employers have already done.

You won’t regret it. The approval ratings for apprenticeships, from both an employer and apprentice perspective – are off the scale.

And if you still have any doubts, ask yourself if you’d like to have a say in the way we train future generations of inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs – or whether you’d rather leave skills policy in the hands of central government, with its track record of success.

But above all, ask yourself what your most precious resource is – for most of us, it always come back to our people.

Thank you.