So according to the recent Demos Commission on Apprenticeships research it appears that everyone loves apprenticeships. Except they don’t when it comes to their own children. As one of the commissioners on the cross-party think-tank, I was disheartened but not surprised by these findings.
Every time we’ve polled parents about apprenticeships they are seen as a good thing in an abstract sense but when it comes to discussing specific options for their own children, A-Levels as a route to university still take the lead. While this attitude is understandable given the bias towards academic learning that continues in this country, it’s a shame that parents still think a university education is the best guarantee of a job.
Whilst there are degrees that are essential in preparing someone for a specific career such as medicine, there are many others that do little to guarantee employment because they don’t have such a clear-cut pathway to a career and competition for graduate positions is fierce. In these cases, an apprenticeship could be a much better bet for someone wanting to learn the skills they need to get a decent job, particularly when you factor in the debt that today’s university graduates are often saddled with.
On the face of it then the benefits of an apprenticeship, and other vocational routes, are clear and while it’s not a case of one option being better than the other, academic and vocational routes into employment should be equally considered by young people. However, despite a general understanding that apprenticeships are a good thing, this message isn’t getting through where it’s needed.
One of the problems that came up in the commission’s research and that we’ve seen at City & Guilds, is the lack of advice for someone wanting to take an apprenticeship. Teachers are being asked to double as careers advisers and as the vast majority followed an academic route into teaching it makes it difficult for them to give informed advice about the other options available. Putting dedicated careers advisers into schools would go some way towards providing non-biased advice about all the routes into employment.
However the bigger issue for me is the difficulty of finding an apprenticeship if you want one. The well-trodden path from school to university is easy to understand and achievable with the right grades. Securing an apprenticeship on the other hand is less certain as, just like any job, you aren’t guaranteed to get one if you apply. There’s also a big gamble to be had in terms of the quality of an apprenticeship. There are obviously some highly-regarded well-known schemes at companies such as BT or BAE Systems but if you’re taking an apprenticeship somewhere less well-known you’re starting on almost as a leap of faith. At 16 this can be a scary choice to make when the academic alternative is so clear cut and particularly when parents and teachers are urging you down the university route.
One of the areas for change recommended by the commission is improving employer engagement within schools, something that I talk about constantly. From talking to young people we know how much they value that direct contact with employers when making choices and how essential it is towards helping them get a job. It’s always easy to point to the celebrity vocational success stories such as Richard Branson or Jamie Oliver but what’s needed is an army of career mentors on the ground who can help young people understand the different routes into employment and also the skills they will need to pick up along the way to make them employable. There has to be a much greater employer presence in schools to help remind teachers, parents and young people of the relevance and importance of vocational routes into work.
All the major political parties are promising new apprenticeships left right and centre at the moment but, to create a truly great system for the future, discussions need to be about how they will increase quality not just quantity. We also need them to consider how they will encourage businesses to take on apprentices in the first place and to make them attractive to young people. As the Commission’s research highlighted and we in FE already know, the benefits of good apprenticeship programmes are clear – from increased productivity for businesses through to improved earning power and workplace skills for those entering employment. Yet none of these benefits will be realised if the route into apprenticeships is not made clearer and more attractive for everyone.
We need to shift the perception of vocational education using professional careers advisers to fully explain the benefits of high quality apprenticeship programmes. It would also help if there were more people in government who have got there by following an alternative educational pathway and understand what high-quality vocational education looks like. Unless we do this, parents and influencers will remain unconvinced of the suitability of apprenticeships and vocational education will never be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with academia as a viable route to career success.
Kirstie Donnelly is UK managing director of training body City & Guilds Group