As an advocate of offering more options for school leavers, it should have been music to my ears to hear that the Government plans to introduce the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017 to fund the creation of three million apprentices in training or employment by 2020.
This morning, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) released a report expressing their concerns that the three million target, and the new funding system, risk poor value for money.
I can’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu.
It wasn’t so long ago that Labour championed their target to get half of young people going to university. Not that much later and suddenly we are in a position of having too many graduates with questionable degrees who are struggling to find employment.
The ridiculous thing is that we’ve also got a shortage of skilled workers. Many industries now rely on vast numbers of our Eastern European neighbours, and their apparent willingness to work, to get menial jobs done. It’s taken the whole hot topic of #Brexit to get us to ask questions about the abilities of our own, home-grown workforce.
So – we all applauded the new focus on apprenticeships. After all, the big difference between an apprentice and a graduate is that an apprentice gets a paid job with a qualification attached and an opportunity for career progression – and a graduate gets a frequently non-vocational degree, a huge debt and no guarantee of a job at all.
What’s not to like? Well quite a lot it appears – and it’s the very term “apprentice” that seems to be the problem with some people.
Libby Purves wrote a great piece in The Times ‘Let’s stop sneering at blue-collar careers’ recently. She suggests, “A dull and barely competent junior executive, with a degree he can’t remember anything about, feels able to look down on a skilled electrician on whose work lives will depend. A third-class politics graduate feels (very unwisely) more secure and advanced in life than a hotel manager. The very phrase “blue-collar” tells its story.”
Apprenticeships have long been associated with ‘blue-collar’ careers. Quite rightly so, as vocational careers, I would much rather know my plumber has learnt on the job than from a text book.
This despite apprenticeships having moved with the times with many legal and accountancy firms seeing the perks of taking non-grads to work practically as well as theoretically. For many bright students who fear the debt of university, and the lack of one-to-one time with their professors, these higher apprenticeships are perfect alternatives.
But, putting a target on the number of pupils to start apprenticeships is the wrong starting point. Just as government policy went for quantity over quality of university education, we risk tarnishing the reputation of the modern apprenticeship before it has already begun.
We have the opportunity to start something brilliant and give young people a number of opportunities to choose from instead of the default option that is university. Let’s not ruin it by chasing numbers over quality.
So, my advice to the Government and teachers is simple. Don’t live by targets and league tables. Instead, let’s encourage our students to choose a route, vocational or academic, that will allow to them to thrive and be the most successful in whatever they choose to do.