Feckless youth, illiterate, innumerate, 794,000 NEETs with no planned future, but glued to Facebook. Must do something. How about apprenticeships?

The government thinks they are a very good idea. In 2017, Anne Milton was appointed Minister of State for Skills and Apprenticeships. Between 2015 and 2016 there were almost 900,000 funded apprenticeships, and there is a target of 3million extra by 2020. So far, so good. But the policy also introduced a new funding requirement: the apprenticeship levy. All UK employers with a pay bill of more than £3million per year have to pay 0.5 per cent of that into an apprenticeship service account, to be spent on training and assessment.

Well, that’s good, then? Apparently not. Since these reforms were introduced last year, the number of young people starting apprenticeships has fallen by 61 per cent. Only 43,600 apprenticeships were started between May and July 2017, compared with 113,000 in the same period the previous year. Why? Employers claim that the level of financial contribution and the amount of time mandated for off-the-job training are serious disincentives. Like most other things in business, it comes down to cost-effectiveness. And a dislike of interfering bureaucracy.

What is an apprentice? It’s a system that goes back to the Middle Ages. A master craftsman was entitled to employ a young person as cheap labour, in exchange for providing board and lodging and formal training in the craft which could lead to the apprentice becoming a master craftsman himself. Often the master was paid by the apprentice’s family to take him on.

The etymology is interesting. ‘Apprentice’ comes from the Old French apprentis, placing the emphasis on learning. But the Swiss/German word is Lehrling – one who is being taught. Both employer and learner have a responsibility. It is a two-way process.

Since the Blair concept of half of all young people going to university was introduced, there has been a growing cynicism about the value of qualifications. All those First Class degrees, and some pass marks at 15 per cent – yet still inadequate skills. But I would draw your attention to the system in Eastern Switzerland, where I live. It’s called the VET, or vocational and educational training, a qualification which contributes to the low rate of youth unemployment in Switzerland of around 4 per cent. When I hear the UK government mantra ‘Every child matters’ I think: action, please, not just words. In our community, the Gemeinde (the local authority) really makes it happen.

In the primary school opposite, children start learning literacy, numeracy, how to be Swiss, ice hockey and skiing. They go on to secondary school, according to interest and ability. There is a grammar school, from which most pupils go on to university. But those who don’t are not left behind. The secondary school next door is for pupils who are not academic but are valued as potential for the community. They learn English, economics and business. They do a lot of sport, and the arts. And at the end of it all, every one of them is found an apprenticeship place in the local economy – construction, retail, healthcare, tourism, administration, even Swiss railways. They are paid the Lehrling rate by their employer.

At the end of the year, the local newspaper devotes several pages to photographs and congratulations for all the Lehrlinge who have qualified for their VET and are moving into full-time employment. The whole community is proud of them and they are celebrated. Their employers also get credit.

Other countries, seeking ways to combat youth unemployment, are taking an interest in the Swiss VET system. It seems this was one of the ideas behind the recent state visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping. These are the statistics that are attracting attention. (Remember, the population of Switzerland is 8.4million as of 2016.)

Source: Swiss VET

But it’s not just a matter of yet another college course, a new funding notion, cheap labour. The Swiss model, according to Jerome Hugli, a project manager for SERI (Education, Research and Innovation), is part of a complex overall picture – including social dialogue, a learning culture, and the federal system of government, concentrating decision-making at local level. It’s built into the Swiss way of life, and it’s a long-term process.

When I ask my son, who has a clever six-year-old, if he plans to send him to university (they live in a London borough with grammar schools and highly regarded independent schools), he tells me: ‘No way. A good old-fashioned polytechnic, to learn something useful and practical. Then start his own business.’ I’m reminded – yet again – of Jordan Peterson, who said, when questioned about sending teenagers to Left-wing indoctrinating colleges: ‘No. Send them to Trade School!’

So, Anne Milton, if you’re looking for a way of doing successful apprenticeships, not just talking about new ideas, you should come over here, and find out how VET works. I’d be delighted to show you round.