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Lessons from apprentices

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.16, 1 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

It is usually true that learners’ success in programmes can be related to a recurring set of influences. Despite changes in the settings in which education and training takes place, these influencers remain constant in their impact.

Many students can succeed given more time. The rush to complete within and only within the designated lock-step length of the programme means that some students fail because they needed a little longer. Others of course will have been frustrated by not being able to move faster. But still the programme has its inexorable pace measured out by calendar years.

Success comes more easily to those who enter with sounder academic preparation often measured by higher level qualifications at entry. It is this factor that largely determines the degree of support required to get a student through the programme successfully.

The people impact of the instructors, teachers, programme managers and so on are alsoan important component of successful education programmes – obviously!

Finally there is an ethnic pattern that repeats itself in New Zealand from programme to programme – Maori and Pasifika do not enjoy the same levels of success as other ethnicities.

So, time, academic preparation, people and ethnicity feature as factors in the levels of success in programme – and this pattern repeats between programme, between provider types and at many different levels.

So it was little surprise that a recent analysis of the completion rates of Modern Apprenticeships should bring out exactly these factors in commenting on the low level of completion that dogs training of this kind. And this is a programme that has consistently failed to meet its targets.

So what is the issue? We can attend to the time available and more flexibility is always in the interests of students. So let’s do that now – forget the one size fits all and allow more individual pathways. Academic preparation is more difficult. The cost of allowing some students more time can be compensated by allowing others to complete more quickly. The great promise of the qualification reform was that “time served” would be dead – well we haven’t achieved that yet.

As an aside, it was pleasing that Waikato University is looking to allow students to complete a Masters degree faster than is currently allowed. This could trigger a trend that focuses on standards at completion rather than the more industrial X number of hours.

With apprenticeships standards and competencies should be the key measure, not time served.

Academic preparation similarly should be able to be addressed. The report notes that those with higher entry qualifications complete their apprenticeships more swiftly and that those in the 18-20 year old bracket are also successful. Well this is also not a surprise. But it would be a sad day if apprenticeships were seen as being more appropriate for those who were already successful in the education system. Apprenticeships were an alternate route to success – practical, on the job learning, a co-operative enterprise between the indentured tradesperson and the novice. Might it be the case that the introduction of block theory courses was something of a contradiction of this principle?

But we love binary distinctions – theory / practice. Good practice is good theory and theory counts for little until it is manifest in practice.

Having good people as Modern Apprenticeship co-ordinators was also a factor in higher rates of completion. I imagine that the best co-ordinators demonstrated the best practice, developed the best relationships, were the best at understanding the progress of the trainees. In the old days when apprenticeships had an element of “sitting next to Nellie” this also applied. “We’ll put him with old Tom – he will show him the ropes.”

It is more of a worry that the ethnicity pattern that features in all tertiary education repeats itself in Modern Apprenticeships. Again, Maori and Pasifika perform less well in the Modern Apprenticeship setting. The uptake of modern apprenticeships is also low among these groups. Again issues of settings and support might be a factor here. The old Maori trades training was wrapped around a set of values and procedures – a twenty-four seven setting, whanaungatanga, care and help outside of the job and so on. Lessons here?

The key point is that this report should encourage us to address the issues rather than wring our hands and start up the sport of blame and accuse that is the substitute for an intelligent response. The report noted that this programme was attracted to the “young with few school qualifications.” This is a tough group to try to serve. The Minister is right to respond by seeing it as a priority that the success rates be lifted but it won’t be achieved without changes.

The reported response of a spokeperson for the Industry Training Federation was strange. He saw the issue as being one of vocational training rather than trades training largely because the “polytechnics had a low success rate as well”. It is difficult to know what comparison was being made here but it couldn’t have been between the overall performance of polytechnic vocational education (with a completion rate of 48%) and industry based Modern Apprenticeships scheme. The report is silent on any comparisons between industry-based and polytechnic-based apprenticeships and this might be worth following up.

It is a useful report which suggests that it is time to take a look at the scheme and see where improved performance might be gained.

But we do struggle to recapture the glory days of apprenticeship training when the government employed 80% of apprentices through lands and survey, the public works department, the P and T, the railway workshops, the armed services and so on. The demise of apprenticeship training in the 1980’s was a direct consequence of the withdrawal of the government of the day from the economy.

We all want apprenticeship training to succeed – but is this simply nostalgia or was it really the success we think it was. And if it was, why does that success elude us now?

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