Sep 2014 / Company
Published: Training Zone (online) 
  • How the vocational training system has evolved from a straight forward post-16 pathway into the workplace to offer learners of any age opportunity to progress
  • Three tier traineeship, apprenticeship and higher apprenticeship system of today offers lifelong learning support

Andrew Cooksley takes a look at the evolution of the vocational training system, from its humble beginnings as a straightforward pathway from education into employment, to the flexible support system for lifelong learning it offers today.

Traditionally perceived as a straightforward pathway to help 16- to 24-year-olds access the workplace straight from school, the profile of vocational training as a whole has risen significantly in recent years to secure the seal of approval from educationalists and academics alike.

When I left school some 35 years ago, the simple apprenticeship was a fairly one-dimensional affair but in many ways offered similar support to learners as the overall vocational system does today – it’s a popular choice for those looking to gain practical, on-the-ground experience and get stuck into the workplace rather than pursuing any academic alternatives.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Since then educationalists and training providers across the UK have had to undertake a significant amount of work to revive that popularity following a subsequent dip in the profile of vocational training. The good news for learners across the board is that the fruits of their labours are now very much coming to bear. In Wales alone, the overall figure for work-based learning provision increased dramatically by 14.5% to over 61,000 unique learners in 2012/13 – higher than in any of the previous five years.

Perhaps most significantly the introduction of the traineeship in August 2013 also brought with it the opportunity for scores of young people to prepare themselves for their future careers, and more importantly create a solid and considered base on which to build their working life moving forward.

employers and businesses are in turn increasingly being empowered to grow the leaders of the future without the need to start from scratch…

Unlike the more conventional apprenticeship, the traineeship offers learners aged 16 – 18 the opportunity to ‘try before they buy’, and the chance to undertake various placements of up to six months in any number of disciplines before committing to a particular field in the longer term. The benefits of this to the lifelong learning process is that the learner is not only more likely to end up pursuing a career they feel more assured is for them at the outset, but is also creating a solid vocational foundation for themselves when it comes to pursuing further training in the future.

So these days not only does the vocational system support lifelong learning by offering adult learners of any age the opportunity to improve their career prospects on the job, at whatever stage of their career, it is also ensures the post-16 learner gets to sample life in the workplace of their choice before committing to a fully-fledged qualification. All this means that employers and businesses are in turn increasingly being empowered to grow the leaders of the future without the need to start from scratch, and that lifelong learning as a concept is becoming more and more embedded into the workplace as time goes on.

Most recently endorsed publicly by Girls School Association president Hilary French and MI5 to name a few, the rising profile of vocational training also means employers looking to capitalise on upward trends in the economy have an established and accessible framework through which they can develop the skills of their existing employees to help them achieve this.

Second, more recent moves to remove the age-related specifications traditionally associated with apprenticeships in the past mean the barriers to lifelong learning on the job are now virtually non-existent. In other words, there is very little reason for any of us who want to continue learning to ever stop these days. Developed by employers for employers, those considering a subsequent progression to a higher apprenticeship in particular can also feel assured that doing so will equip them with a qualification very much recognised by their current and future employers too.

Anyone looking to pursue further vocational training can also feel confident that qualifications received will also be academically sound too. A Level 4 or 5 higher apprenticeship equates to a higher education certificate, diploma or foundation degree in the academic world, with a Level 6 equivalent to a bachelor degree and Level 7 to a Master’s degree, for example.

As latter day cousins to the conventional apprenticeship, there are also many other alternative work-based programmes available to support workforce development overall, such as Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) qualifications, and many others.

So where once the pathway to improvement may have seemed fairly straightforward, there are now a range of routes available to learners looking to further their self-development through vocational means, whether they are looking to reach their full potential in their current role or aspire to progress elsewhere. Since August 2013 almost 1,000 learners have have completed an ACT qualification alongside their day-to-day jobs – the oldest of these learners joining up at the very respectable age of 64 years young. 

Put simply, the days of the young apprentice are no more.

Andrew Cooksley is managing director of Wales’ largest training provider, ACT Training. He grew up in Cardiff and left school at the age of 15 with no qualifications. After a lot of jobs and false starts, Andrew started ACT in 1988 at the age of 22.