Former schools minister Andrew Adonis has rallied against the failure of small businesses to take on school leavers for apprenticeships and work experience.
Speaking to an audience of small business owners, Adonis said it was too easy for companies to blame the government for the poor provision of apprenticeships in the UK.
The UK has a poor track record of providing vocational routes into work for students, said Adonis, architect of the school academies programme.
“We simply don’t have the apprenticeships. And because we don’t have the apprenticeships, we have a very weak employment trajectory for 21 years olds,” he told delegates at The Exchange 2012 conference.
It is a myth that small businesses need specialist brokerages to help them find suitable candidates for apprenticeships and work experience, he said.
He urged small businesses owners to take action by building direct relationships with their local schools.
“The idea that a big brokerage is going to provide the one, right student for you, when you have a secondary school nearby with 180 pupils that you could approach, makes no sense,” he said.
Adonis criticised schools for failing to do more to help their pupils find places on apprenticeship and work experience schemes.
“The bain of the state education system as a massive bureaucracy is an excuse for not taking your responsibility for functions that are actually quite simple and straightforward,” he said.
“A typical secondary school has 100 plus staff, a budget of £7m, and a large group of governors. It should be capable of organising these things,” said Adonis.
The state comprehensive system, he suggested, was “barely adequate” and was failing to deliver the youngsters with the minimum levels of education that employers need.
In the UK, only 59% of pupils achieve the minimum level of GCSEs, compared with 90% of pupils in Singapore, he said.
Airbus, for example, recently received 1,500 applications for 200 apprenticeship places, but could not find enough young people with the minimum grades to fill them, Adonis revealed.
The government itself needs to do more to take on more apprentices, he said.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which is responsible for promoting apprenticeships, for example, had only taken on one apprentice, said Adonis.
“I went to see the prime minister about it, and told him it was not satisfactory. If we are going to get apprenticeships, the state has got to take its own responsibilities seriously,” he told the meeting.
Business leaders at the conference said they needed help to build relationships with schools, as they lacked the time to find schools that were willing to work with them.
“I don’t have time to ring around seven schools, only to be rejected by six,” one business owner told Adonis.
“We are clearly not on the same wavelength,” said the former minister.
Only two in five companies in the UK have an employee on their books under the age of 21, Adonis revealed.
A show of hands at the meeting revealed that only one small business present had taken on an apprentice.