Tuesday, 19 April 2011

the discourse of 'apprenticeships'

It would seem that regardless of the economic weather apprenticeships are back in fashion.  In Scotland, with the approach of the 2011 Holyrood Election, Labour are offering an unmeasured amount of places whereas the SNP have promised 25,000 places.  In England, the Conservative Chancellor, in his recent Budget, announced that he was funding a total of 50,000 apprenticeships for the young unemployed.  This convergence of the political spectrum to the concept of apprenticeships is historically explicable since it is the ‘dominant, surviving textual practices [of manufacture and design] that give rise to the system of meaning’ within the wider discourse of the workplace, (Shapiro 2009), even if the parties converge from different ideological positions.  For those working in the management of Modern Apprenticeships these promises/aspirations are, whilst heartening, somewhat puzzling.  Although the workload of some contractors has improved, confidence remains low and margins remain tight.  The actualit√©  has been eloquently highlighted by Gerard Eadie, Chairman of CR Smith, in an succinct letter to The Sunday Telegraph (27-03-11) ‘Government cannot create apprentices...[i]t will take employers hiring 40,000 more young people before there can be 40,000 more apprenticeships’, and restated in The Guardian (29-03-11) by Charlie Mullins, director of Pimlico Plumbers, ‘[o]n paper it’s positive, but each ‘new apprenticeship’ requires a job’.

So why this concern with apprenticeships at a time when employers are simply not in a position to make the politicians’ dreams come true?  I don’t think the answer lies directly within the control of employers but in the funding arrangements for Higher Education.  It seems entirely plausible that the English funding agreement will reduce the available number of university places to school leavers.  If apprenticeships can, therefore, be sold as a realistic and viable option for school leavers then their taking up will automatically reduce the pressure on the numbers applying to universities, (cf. Bakhradnia, 15-03-11).  Apprenticeships have, accordingly, to be socially packaged as objects of desire – developed, embedded, entextualised, sanctioned, legitimized, commodified,  - the entire panoply of twenty-first century, post-crash meaning-making.  In consequence of this, and despite this fissure between political intent and economic reality, one would expect in these promises of investment that there would be a concomitant appreciation regarding the status of apprenticeships to be equally visible in the political parties’ discourse.
The current (1989), on-line, Oxford English Dictionary defines an ‘apprentice’, n. as;
1. A learner of a craft; one who is bound by legal agreement to serve an employer in the exercise of some handicraft, art, trade, or profession, for a certain number of years, with a view to learn its details and duties, in which the employer is reciprocally bound to instruct him.

2. Obs.

3. By extension: One who is only learning the rudiments; an unskilled novice, a tyro.

Of course as well as its noun sense, ‘apprentice’ can also be treated adjectivally, such as in ‘apprentice electrician’ but whilst ‘apprentice electrician’ or “apprentice motor mechanic” doesn’t jar on the ears, the same adjective, when applied to a university taught profession, so as to produce “apprentice teacher” or “apprentice chemical engineer” seems if not discordant ridiculously oxymoronic.  In this context, the OED’s n.1 initial sense ‘a learner of a craft’ seems most appropriate; and to some extent therein lies the rub since one doesn’t really expect to find an apprenticeship in the taught university ‘professions’.  This perceived discordance is, however, not accidental but is, instead, an example of how the term ‘apprenticeship’ has constitutively established a complex social construction that has been tightly interwoven into broader social relations.

The Labour Party’s position is founded upon John Park’s 2008 Public Consultation, The Apprenticeship (Scotland) Bill.  In that public consultation document  an apprenticeship is defined as something mostly ‘taken up by school leavers, who study towards a Scottish Vocational Qualification (SVQ) or National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) co-ordinated within the SVQ MA framework, and that these qualifications are normally undertaken in a college on day/block release or in a training centre’, (1.3).  Of interest, then, is the decision by Procter & Gamble to replace its graduate recruitment programme in order to directly recruit school leavers as ‘apprentices’ with a bespoke degree course at Northumbria University (TESS, 11-02-11).  Such an arrangement doesn’t demonstrate an inkling of semantic broadening but instead appears to be evidence of the discourse catching up with its semantic content.
George Osborne’s recent Budget speech further elaborated upon the current reconstruction of the apprenticeship package.  There are, according to Osborne’s budget speech, ‘currently only 1,500 higher level apprenticeships across the whole of England’ with the Chancellor aiming to increase this to 10,000.  It might no longer be politically acceptable to emphasize a Derridean sense of the relation of power between the binary poles of opposition (Hall, 2009) such as university/college, professional/craftsman, university student/apprentice; pairings but not equivalences.  But even if such things are no longer spoken of a trace inevitably remains.  Note how Osborne’s Budget provision for “higher level apprenticeships” asserts the HEgemony of a university taught education in contrast to what I suppose must now be called, “lower level apprenticeships”: university apprenticeship/craft apprenticeship.
Coincidentally, although these poles of opposition find their educational foundation in the Scottish Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to allow ‘disengaged’ fourteen year olds to leave school to take up an apprenticeship it would be simplistic to assume that such social positioning is solely the preserve of the Tories.  Before the dissolution of the current Holyrood Parliament the Scottish Government’s Finance Minister, John Swinney, announced the chosen contractors for the new Forth Bridge.  He was particularly pleased ‘that this bid will annually provide 45 vocational training positions, 21 professional body training places and 46 positions for the long term unemployed’ and in doing so re-asserted the common-sense understanding of the distinction between vocational or craft apprenticeships and university taught professions.  Perhaps most depressingly, John Park (unwittingly?) positioned the value of what an apprenticeship offers, ‘ [it is an] option for those who don’t wish to follow an academic route.  It is a real alternative to … unemployment’, (1.4).
‘Political processes are, amongst other things, contests over alternative understandings immanent within representational practices’, (Shapiro, 2009).  This current contestation regarding apprenticeships is not simply a question about which party can or will guarantee the maximum number of apprenticeships but is, more particularly, a stage in the process of constructing the dominant mode of representation which will, thereafter, be labelled as ‘apprenticeship’, (Mehan, 2009).  To make use of the Foucauldian term it would appear that politicians are attempting to move the discourse from one episteme to another.  Even so, despite the need to provide a meaningful career path for school leavers, one that is a legitimate and fulfilling alternative to the university option, the old reductive system of thought that allows apprenticeships to be spoken of as non-academic and in contrast to the professions, continues to slip through.  Consequently, despite the current rhetoric of politicians a craft apprenticeship remains represented in their language as a second-class option.


Bakhradnia, B. ‘The most likely future will see fewer students’, The Guardian, EducationGuardian, 15 March 2011, p.6
Eadie, G. (2011) 'One company in ten offering apprenticeships is far too few', The Sunday Telegraph, 27 March, p. 23
Hall, S. (2009) 'The Spectacle of the Other', in Wetherell, M., Taylor, S. and Yates, S.J. (eds) Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, London, Sage, The Open University Press
Lee, J. (2011) 'Procter & Gamble wagers its future on school leavers', Times Education Supplement Scotland, p. 19
Mehan, H. (2009) ‘The Construction of an LD Student: A Case Study in the Politics of Representation’ in Wetherell, M., Taylor, S. and Yates, S.J. (eds) Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, London, Sage, The Open University Press
Murray, J. (2011) 'You are needed at your workstation', The Guardian, EducationGuardian, 29 March 2011, pp. 4-5
Osborne, G. (2011) 'Full Transcript | George Osborne | Budget Speech | 23 March 2011', New Statesman [online], http://www.newstatesman.com/2011/03/tax-today-britain-government (Accessed 26 March 2011)
Park, J. (2008) 'The Apprenticeship (Scotland) Bill: Public Consultation', http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/s3/bills/membersbills/pdfs/ApprenticeshipsBillConsultation.pdf
Shapiro, M. (2009) 'Textualising Global Politics’, in Wetherell, M., Taylor, S. and Yates, S.J. (eds) Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, London, Sage, The Open University Press