Confederation of British Industry West Midlands Education and Skills Conference

HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw addresses the Confederation of British Industry conference in Solihull about apprenticeships.

Sir Michael Wilshaw

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me to address you today.

The West Midlands is a very fitting place to make a speech on education and employment. Birmingham was a powerhouse long before politicians discovered the word and applied it to a few less glamorous places further north. It was the crucible of the industrial revolution and the workshop of the world. It was home to more than a thousand trades. It’s where skilled men and women learned their trade at the shoulders of master craftsmen. It’s a place where ‘apprentice’ was once a synonym for ‘skilled’.

I suspect you’re used to hearing those over-used compliments. All listed in the past tense. A roll call of past glories to contrast with a challenging present.

Yet the fact is that the present remains full of promise. Yes, the West Midlands was hit hard in the recession, but it is recovering quickly. It remains home to some of our industrial giants. It is the only region in the UK with a trade surplus with China. A business is created in the midlands every 13 minutes.

Its future deserves to be just as illustrious as its past. But there is a significant brake on that potential. Industry cannot prosper if its workforce lacks the skills to enable it to grow. Your advanced engineering firms, high-tech businesses, builders and manufacturers are all crying out for highly-motivated, bright apprentices with the capacity to learn.

In this region alone there were 50,000 vacancies, including 10,000 in skilled trades, according to the most recent skills survey. Your local chamber of commerce reports that 70% of employers had difficulty recruiting in the last quarter. Your economy is growing and unemployment locally is generally on the way down. But there are still 165,000 people in the West Midlands looking for work. Depressingly, over 60,000 of them are aged 16-24. How can this be?

How can we be in a situation, which is by no means unique to the West Midlands, where employers can’t find skilled workers while thousands remain on the dole? Why is it that so many local firms are forced to rely on imported skilled labour because they find it impossible to find the right capabilities locally? Who is to blame?

The guilty parties

In my opinion, there are 3 guilty parties: schools, further education providers and, I’m afraid to say, you – the employers.

Too many of our schools are failing to prepare young people for the world of work. Even where they do, the careers advice on offer isn’t encouraging enough youngsters into vocational routes that would serve many of them best. Too many of our FE providers have focussed for too long on equipping youngsters with dubious qualifications of little economic relevance. And too many employers have not engaged with schools or organised themselves effectively to make the apprenticeship system work.

There are promising developments. The government is on the right path. The commitment to delivering 3 million apprenticeships over the next 5 years is commendable. The new trailblazers approach looks set to invigorate the system. The business-levy is focusing the minds of employers on what they want to get out of the apprenticeship programme. Around the country there are pockets of good practice, like the Skills Hub run by the Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, which are trying to get it right.

Yesterday, I met a group of apprentice electricians at the Birmingham Electrical Training company. They had a tangible sense of pride in what they were doing. They were being well supported by their training provider and could see a clear path to future employment.

But here’s the rub: even with the increased awareness of apprenticeships, even with the welcome political will and the evidence of how much those on good apprenticeships benefit, we are still falling far short of our goal of closing the skills gap.

I strongly suspect, for all the fine words, for all the comforting rhetoric, that we are nowhere near fulfilling our ambitions.

In my Annual Report last year I highlighted concerns about how apprenticeships were being delivered. I was sufficiently worried to commission my inspectors to undertake a substantive piece of research to look into this. The results of that work are published today. Many of their conclusions will be depressingly familiar to you.

The role of schools

Before I address issues around the quality and relevance of what is on offer and the role of employers, I would first like to tackle the role of schools.

Of course, most schools don’t deliver apprenticeships. But for younger apprentices in particular, what happens in school can make the difference between success and failure. Indeed, it can determine whether or not they even get the opportunity to be an apprentice.

Too few pupils and their parents really know what apprenticeships are. Sadly, teachers and school leaders are often no better informed. Decent careers advice for young people is frequently unavailable.

The fact that only 5% of our youngsters go into an apprenticeship at 16 is little short of a disaster. What’s more, very few of these had 5 or more GCSEs at grade C or above. Too many schools see this option as the last chance for the academically challenged. That attitude has to change.

As our report makes clear today, schools must provide impartial careers guidance about apprenticeships to all students. Young people at 16 need to understand the options before them. They should have been exposed to the world of work so that they can make informed choices. Not every bright kid needs to go to university to have a successful career. And schools have to realise this.

One of my own directors experienced this prejudice at first hand when his daughter’s school called with the ‘bad news’ that she wanted to do an apprenticeship. This snobbery has to end. Particularly when you consider the recent Sutton Trust research revealing that high-end apprentices earn more over their lifetime than many university graduates.

As I said last year we should look again at the models offered in countries such as Switzerland and Germany, where an apprenticeship is as valued as classroom-based education.

Some schools here are getting it right. At Longbenton Community College near Newcastle all year 10 pupils are found meaningful work experience and sixth-form students are matched with bespoke work placements. The school’s website even has an ‘apprenticeship opportunities section’. It is a model more need to follow.

More fundamentally, schools need to nurture the life skills that make pupils employable. After all there’s more to becoming an apprentice at 16 or 17 than the ability to fill out a form.

I realise that it’s easy to generalise. Of course there are many young people leaving school who you would gladly hire. But employers repeatedly tell us that not enough applicants are ready for work.

You’ll know the key issues:

  • immaturity
  • a lack of motivation
  • sloppiness
  • negative attitudes
  • a poor grasp of maths and English

The root cause of all of this isn’t a mystery. A culture of low expectations pervades too many schools. If children are allowed to believe they won’t amount to much, why is it any surprise when they don’t?

Behaviour in many schools continues to be a real problem. A child that hasn’t been taught to behave at school isn’t likely to fit in at work. A child that hasn’t learned to concentrate at school isn’t going to focus at work. A child that hasn’t been taught to respect their teachers isn’t going to easily respect their colleagues.

Employers around the country have shared their experiences with Ofsted. Kwik-Fit tell us that school leavers ‘don’t know how to talk to customers, understand commercial deadlines or appreciate the importance of safe working practices’.

At Whitbread they put trainees on a four-week pre-employment course before they are even ready to train. While it is commendable of Whitbread to do this, they shouldn’t have to put it on in the first place. Employers and business have a role to play here. To reprise my call from last year’s speech, it is no good carping from the sidelines about standards if you don’t get involved. Your former director general, John Cridland, put it eloquently in a speech this summer:

‘Schools shouldn’t be places where business people drop their kids at the beginning of the day like they drop off their dry-cleaning. Businesses should lead by example – sponsoring academies, engaging with curriculum design and supporting employees who act as school governors.’

Quality of provision

Schools need to do more to promote apprenticeships and prepare young people to take them on. But there is little point encouraging people into apprenticeships if what they experience is mediocre, fails to enhance their skills and doesn’t help them get a job.

The government’s ambition for 3 million new apprenticeships over the coming years is laudable. But it is vital that quality is not sacrificed for quantity.

Unfortunately, our report today lays bare what many have long suspected. Despite the increase in numbers very few apprenticeships are delivering the professional, up-to-date skills in the sectors that need them most.
Standards vary enormously around the country. In the last 3 years over a quarter of all apprentices aged 16 to 24 were in provision that was judged less than good. That’s over 85,000 apprentices. And that’s only the ones we’ve inspected.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most high-quality apprenticeships are found in industries that have long-established traditions of using them: the car industry, construction and engineering. Typically apprentices in these sectors receive decent training off and on the job. They develop skills that enhance their employability and contribute more widely to their employer’s business. But such apprenticeships are few in number and are largely delivered by long-standing industries and providers.

In contrast, the burgeoning numbers of apprenticeships in the service and retail sectors are consistently failing to reach these high standards. It’s not that you can’t have high quality in these sectors, but too often these ‘apprenticeships’ are nothing of the kind but simply labels put on existing employment, the accreditation of prior skills.

Further education and skills providers need to engage with employers regularly to match provision to local employment needs. But in too many instances that simply isn’t happening.

The latest figures sum up our predicament. Since 2009 the number of apprenticeships has nearly tripled in the health and care sector but risen much more slowly in engineering, and IT. In the same period numbers actually fell in construction.

Moreover, we are increasingly training the wrong age groups. Ten years ago 16 to 18 year olds accounted for half of all apprenticeships. Now it is a quarter. The bulk of the increase in apprenticeships in recent years has come from the over 25s.

Typically, these programmes focus too much on employees’ current jobs and are of little value to the individual or the company – like the 57 year-old part time school cleaner who complained on the BBC news website that they were signed up to an apprenticeship without any say in the matter. Shockingly, inspectors find many participants are unaware they are even on an apprenticeship course. Training is minimal, standards are poor and progress is unchecked.

In one recent example in a care home, inspectors found so-called ‘apprentices’ who had not been taught how to work out when residents next needed to take their medicine, how to calculate weight loss or to take down legible notes about the day’s events to pass to the night staff.

It is essential that we guard against this reduction in the value of apprenticeships. An apprenticeship isn’t endless tea-making, shelf-stacking or envelope-stuffing. It is not an induction course or a six-week in-house training scheme. It is not a badge for doing what is already done.

An apprenticeship is quality training, delivered over a long period, which meets real business needs and is regularly assessed by experts. An apprenticeship is a valued commodity that gives an employee a passport to advance and the employer the opportunity to improve their business.

Employers and providers involved in poor quality, low-level apprenticeships are wasting public funds. They are abusing the trust placed in them by government and apprentices to deliver meaningful, high-quality training. Ofsted will not shy away from reporting such failure. Funding agencies and, ultimately, government should continue to be prepared to withdraw finance from those employers and providers who abuse the system.

Many further education and skills providers have particular lessons to learn. They often try to be all things to all. My advice to them is simple: specialise. Our inspection evidence shows that when they focus their curriculum, when they concentrate on specialisms that meet local employment needs standards rise.

We’re increasingly seeing providers, especially general further education colleges failing because they are not liaising with local businesses and not updating their courses to match local needs. I urge government to be radical in its reform of the sector. We have indulged mediocrity for far too long and we should no longer accept it.

Role of business

Apprenticeships are suffering from the detachment of schools and the dubious value of too many courses. But the overriding problem has been, is and will continue to be one of organisation. Unless there is a very clear organisational structure around apprenticeships the government’s ambitions will remain unmet.

You as employers have got to take ownership. Don’t leave it to government, take the initiative. Why isn’t there a recognised structure to deliver apprenticeships at a local level? Why isn’t the CBI working with local chambers of commerce to organise and identify the needs of a region? If the great majority of employers are SMEs, employing fewer than 20 people, how can they fully engage if they don’t know where to turn?

This is my challenge to you. Organise yourselves. It’s no use waiting for others to put structures in place and then bemoan the lack of progress made. Use your networks and knowledge to find solutions.

The government’s new trailblazer standards recognise the need for a more joined-up approach. But while initial indications are positive, implementation is behind schedule and the numbers involved are small. There are currently only 300 apprentices signed up through trailblazers, compared to over three quarters of a million on the existing frameworks. There are also concerns that smaller businesses are finding it harder to get on board with the new strategy. So help them engage.

Last year fewer than 1 in 5 businesses around the country offered an apprenticeship place. I know many more would love to, like the manager of a small lawnmower business in Oxfordshire who tells my FE and skills specialist (also his customer) of his desire to take on apprentices but his utter confusion about how to go about it.

A joined up approach is needed not only to help SMEs access the opportunities of apprentices but to establish where the skills gaps are and to ensure we get the best fit of apprentices into vacancies.

Earlier this month the City and Guilds Group called for an UCAS style clearing process for apprenticeship applications. At first glance that might seem overly bureaucratic. It would, admittedly, be very complex to deliver on a national level. But on a local level it could work.

Why can’t local firms, colleges and schools come together to agree where the needs are and guide the right people to the right role? Why can’t we replicate the National Apprenticeship Service but, but on a more local level? We know this works for some big companies but not for small ones.

Compare the guidance and support students receive around the UCAS process with the help available to potential apprentices. Would-be undergraduates get advice on options and opportunities; assistance with filling in applications; tutoring on how to handle interviews; days off for university open days, information and feedback from students who have already enrolled. If only a quarter of this sort of support existed for would-be apprentices I am sure many more talented young people would successfully become one.

If we don’t fix the apprenticeship system we will continue to have major problems in recruitment. Local firms won’t be able to fill vacancies without looking outside their areas or overseas, while local youngsters won’t be able to find work because they don’t have the right skills or they don’t know how to access the right training.


The potential for well-delivered apprenticeships is unlimited. Did you know there is currently a recruitment campaign for apprentice cyber spies? Would-be James Bonds are being invited to join a ‘higher level apprenticeship programme’ that would ultimately see them help protect their country. I wish that had been around when I was a young man.

Being an apprentice should be a badge of honour. All of us in this room have a part to play in ensuring that this is true for everyone taking on an apprentice, be it in the aeronautics or hospitality industry, a care home, a car production line or at GCHQ.

The reforms now working their way through the system are commendable. But we are kidding ourselves if we think our good intentions are enough. We have won the argument over the value of apprenticeships. We have yet to make them a sought-after and valid alternative career choice for hundreds of thousands of young people. Unless we do so, we risk leaving in place a two-tier system of high and low quality apprenticeships that short change the participants and fail to address the skill needs of the nation.

I would be delighted to come back to a CBI audience in another year. I hope my message will be one of celebration for all that has been achieved, not another call to action.

Published 22 October 2015