By Daniel Hunter

Apprenticeships need to be better defined, have a clear structure and be viewed in the same esteem as a university education were the clear messages from business leaders, schools and training providers at a Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) event to celebrate National Apprenticeship Week.

The Government has ambitious plans to increase apprenticeship numbers. The event saw the FSB and the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), join forces to discuss how improved collaboration between small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), schools and local authorities could lead to young people being better prepared for the workplace and more knowledgeable about apprenticeships as a route into work.

The roundtable discussions backed-up the FSB's call in its report The Apprenticeship Journey for a better defined system as well as thoughts on how to put businesses at the centre of the system. This is one of the recommendations from the Richard Review, which the Government is anticipated to respond to this week. The FSB believes that in order to increase the number of people starting an apprentice, the Government should:

• Work with businesses to clearly define an apprenticeship
• Explore ways that businesses can draw down funding for the apprenticeship directly
• Remove functional skills such as numeracy and literacy as a core element of the apprenticeship and make sure they are taught well enough in school

John Walker, National Chairman, Federation of Small Businesses, said: "Apprenticeships are a vital route to employment and shouldn't be seen as second class to a university education. This forum provided an ideal discussion to air the views of the business owner. We were pleased that the Prime Minister said this week that apprenticeships should be seen as the ‘new norm'. To make this happen, we hope that the Government takes on board the recommendations of the Richard review, which highlights the need for a clear definition and more business involvement."

David Willetts MP, Universities and Science Minister, said: "Apprenticeships are at the heart of the Government's drive to equip people of all ages with the skills employers need to prosper and compete internationally. Over the last two years we have almost doubled the number of apprenticeship starts, topping the half million mark for the first time in 2011-12, and introduced rigorous new measures to drive up quality.

"We want more small and medium sized businesses to be able to benefit from everything that apprentices can bring to their business. That's why we have introduced a £1,500 incentive to SMEs taking on their first young apprentice."

David Way, CEO of the National Apprenticeship Service, said: "The theme of this year's National Apprenticeship Week is all about how Apprenticeships deliver benefits for young people, business and the economy. It is therefore extremely fitting that the FSB held this event during the Week to encourage more small businesses to take on an apprentice. Research tells us that the average apprentice increases business productivity by £214 per week through increased profits, lower prices, better products and better wages.

"NAS can offer expert advice and support for small businesses and there is also a £1,500 grant available for small businesses who want to recruit an apprentice for the first time — 99 per cent of businesses in the UK are small and medium sized but only around 10 per cent of them currently employ apprentices. By working with key organisations such as the FSB, we will be able to spread the word to many more small employers that Apprenticeships are an extremely effective way to tap into raw talent, up-skill their staff and grow their business, as well as offering young people skills that employers value and life changing career opportunities."

Jason Holt, author of the independent Government review: ‘Making apprenticeships more accessible to small and medium-sized businesses', said: "I'm pleased to have been able to attend this event to highlight the important role that apprenticeships can play in small firms. As the UK's biggest employer, it is vital that we (SMEs) make apprenticeships work for us. Events like this will help small businesses better understand apprenticeships and they will aid the re-branding process.

"I believe it is crucial for schools and businesses to open the lines of communication; to show young people the successful and rewarding route of an apprenticeship. With NAS helping to make navigation easier, training providers such as Holts Academy tailoring their training and incentives in place to encourage up-take we are making good progress. However, we need continued Government support to ensure the recommendations are carried through."

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