Tony Parkin: The modern sorcerer’s apprentice

Tony Parkin switches his attention to post-16 education, and the future of apprenticeships over the next few years.

If you use the word ‘apprentice’ in 2015, most folk in the UK will probably think of Alan Sugar, Nick and Margaret, and reality television. A few may even think transatlantically of Donald Trump and the US version of the TV show. But just as 21st century TV’s ‘The Apprentice’ spawned the monster that is Katy Hopkins, the 20th century (and earlier)  version of the term apprentice may also now have given rise to an evil offspring that will grow up to cause irreparable damage to a fine ideal. Rather like Mickey did in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. As a passionate believer in the power of apprenticeship, I want to see it restored to the standing it once had, and am hoping a wizard will come along and make all well again.

To help me make my point in this piece, you will need to humour me for a paragraph or two. I am asking you allow me a bit of personal nostalgia, and that you follow it, to enable me lay the ground for my main argument on apprenticeships. I confess it is accompanied by more than a touch of northern pride, filial affection and just a little self-indulgence. I also appreciate that in history there were times when apprentices were abused and under-privileged, and proudly admit that I write from the social perspective of my own era, not the mediaeval perspective of a historian.

I grew up in a Yorkshire working-class home, and in awe of apprentices. They were the youthful elite of my early teen years, and an apprenticeship was how the youth in my neighbourhood demonstrated that they had a future. This was the era when almost every 16 year old stopped trying to show maturity by emulating dad or mum, with Harris Tweed jacket or cashmere twinset, and started to dress and behave differently, something which only the renegade teddy boys had done in the previous generation of the 50s. But they still tried to land an apprenticeship.

When a mum came into the butcher’s shop where I was delivery boy, and said, ‘Our Barry has got an apprenticeship in the carriage-works’, there would be congratulations from all in the queue, and all would agree that it was most fortunate that Barry would have a trade and a secure job. Or if it was Mary who had managed to get a place, maybe as an apprentice hairdresser, this was seen as a cut above going to work in a shop or at the local chocolate factory, the other major outlets for female labour in York in the early 60s. Apprenticeships were the mark of working-class success, and probably beat landing a place at the grammar school on the educational success ladder as seen on the street.

Our house would from time to time be visited by a series of impossibly good-looking young men, all sporting Elvis Presley quiffs and occasionally sideboards, exuding that mixture of menace and charm that was essential in the era of Marlon Brando and James Dean. They would laugh and joke with my dad, who was their ‘minder’ in the traditional way that an apprentice was attached to a seasoned craftsman to learn the ropes, the grinders or whatever other equipment was to be operated in the workshop.

/CREDIT Glass Hammer Nails – Smithsonian by Frabel.jpg

I saw a different side to my dad at these occasions, and started to realise just how much these apprentices looked up to, and respected him. Similarly how much he looked out for and after them, teaching them as much about life and he did about lens-grinding, or getting the finest webs from spiders for the gun-sight cross-hairs, or whatever other skills they needed in their new career. He would join in with the other men when it came to the rituals, like sending the new gullible apprentice out to buy striped paint, or a glass hammer, bubbles for the spirit level or more holes for the hole punch. But he would make sure that they were protected from some of the harsher jokes and cruel bullying that sometimes accompanied a robust workshop life. He’d buy them a pint, teach them to play darts, and help the apprentice become a man, for of course there were no women in his workshops, these were different days.

One of my dad’s proudest moments was when one of his earliest apprentices, Dave,  asked him to be his best man at the upcoming wedding. I happened to be there, as Dave had come round for his tea, having asked my dad if he could see him somewhere quiet. My dad’s immediate response was that Dave needed someone of his own age, and fired off a list of suitable names that they both knew. ‘Nay’, said Dave,’ you are the best mate anyone could want, and I want you to do it.’ My dad’s ears went pink and my mother gave them both a hug. Now the irony here was that my dad loathed any sort of formal event, hated getting dressed up in suits, and certainly couldn’t contemplate ever making a speech. But all these things were achieved successfully, and they went on to be close friends for many, many years.  

I only stayed in the scouting movement because one of his later apprentices, John, was a member of the newly-invented Senior Scouts, and sold me on the idea at 15. When at 17 I got a free trip to Greece to attend the 11th World Jamboree, and became the first member of our household ever to go abroad since my grandad in the First World War, he ruffled my hair and said, ‘I told you it was worth staying on, kid’. And my ears duly went pink in turn. This is what apprenticeship meant in our house. [Nostalgia ends].

So I think you can see why I may just have a rose-tinted view of the meaning and value of the  apprenticeship. This was further reinforced by encounters in the first decade of this century with employers like Rolls Royce in Derby, and Land Rover near Coventry, and seeing their excellent apprenticeship and education programmes. Therefore you will understand why, when Tristram Hunt started saying that a Labour government would introduce  a revitalised apprenticeship programme, I was all in favour. I was even more amazed and delighted when a campaigning Conservative party also announced that they would be putting huge efforts into increasing the numbers of apprenticeships. Even if the Conservatives did somehow feel the need to add the term modern to create the ‘Modern Apprenticeship’. Presumably taking advice from the same PR consultants who had persuaded Tony Blair of the need for ‘New’ Labour?

This move was especially surprising after the Gove and Gibb era at the DfE, which seemed to cast a shadow over all aspects of non-academic education, despite some of Gove’s protestations about his humble origins and opinions. Maybe, after 50 years of neglect, we could hopefully see the return of a positive view of technical education, and break away from the pervasive sense of failure that has been inflicted on vocational education and further education? Maybe it wasn’t just nostalgia, and modern apprenticeships had a rosy future after all.

I recently mentioned the possibility of one of these modern apprenticeships to 17 year old son Matt, and his girlfriend Ellena, who are both trying to work out what to do in a life that probably won’t include university. My rose-tinted spectacles were immediately dashed to the ground and smashed into pieces by the vehemence of their responses. ‘No way’, they both chorused, and then proceeded to tell me of various peers who had been given ‘apprenticeships’.  Only for the businesses employing the apprentice to sack them once the ‘apprenticeship’ was over and take on another gullible youngster at minimum outlay. Matt and Ellena see apprenticeships as a way of paying them half the going rate for the work, avoiding the minimum wage legislation, and generally exploiting the young. Asking around, I soon discovered that Matt and Ellena were not alone in this view. Far from being something to aspire to, an apprenticeship is now seen by many young people as exploitative, and  rather than something aspirational, something to be despised and avoided at all costs.

I am reminded therefore not of the 60s, but of the 80s. A period when I gave jobs to a couple of YTS ‘graduates’. For those who don’t remember it, the Youth Training Scheme was an earlier creation from the Thatcher government of the early 80s, that also claimed to be driven by a need to help those not destined to go to university engage with the world of work, and enter employment. But from its early days the critics, including many of the young people who took part in the programme, savaged the YTS scheme as a way for businesses to exploit young labour, suppress wages, and generally keep the middle class wealthy and the working class impoverished. Almost identical views, in fact, to those expressed by Matt, Ellena and their friends about the modern apprenticeship. I can think of no worse fate for the noble concept of the  apprenticeship than to be compared to the loathed YTS.

If the modern apprenticeship, so welcomed by many, is to succeed, we all need to take a good hard look at how it is viewed not through the rose-tinted spectacles of 20th century folk like me, but through the much more important lens of the eyes of today’s young people. Apprenticeship, like internship, should be restored to the high standing of earlier years, and not represent the exploitation of the young.  Or there is a danger that the noble and honourable tradition of apprenticeships will be lost and derided forever through  a cynical rebranding of the dreaded YTS of Thatcher’s Britain.

Former head of ICT Development at SSAT, Tony Parkin is now a freelance educationalist, lecturer and writer. Follow Tony on Twitter here.