The big drive in education policy over the last decade or so, under whichever government one chooses, seems to have been to keep young people in education. Many moons ago, Tony Blair’s Labour government famously spoke of wanting 50% of youngsters to go on to university – and in 2011/12, almost 50% of school leavers did enter higher education (although numbers were boosted by the rush to beat the rise in fees, with an additional 13,000 school leavers deciding against a gap year, compared with previous years). The current government has raised the education leaving age to 17 and in 2015 the leaving age will rise again to 18.
Many young people who will now stay on in education to 18 have no wish to go on to university, or to study A levels in order to get there. They don’t have to stay in school, however, they can instead go to college, take a part-time training course or take up an apprenticeship. It sometimes feels, though, that in the drive towards university, apprenticeships look like a very poor relation.
They should not be. Not everyone is suited to academic life and our whole way of living depends on people who can build and fix things – mechanics, plumbers, electricians to name a few – and who are prepared to take on vital administrative jobs, for example, but who don’t necessarily need a degree to perform them well. As the government website promises, “Being an apprentice gives you the opportunity to gain a recognised qualification and develop professional skills, while earning a salary, inside some of Britain’s best companies.”
A political battleground
As election time approaches, politicians seem to have noticed apprenticeships again. The provision of these supported, practical learning opportunities is becoming a new political battleground. Good. At the Labour Party Conference in September, Ed Milliband said: “There are not enough advanced, high-quality apprenticeships available for school leavers, with four times as many going to university instead. This is leaving both young people and businesses without the skills they need to succeed for the future.” The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, promised that should Labour get back into power, the UK would build a “vocational education system to rival Germany’s,” with FE colleges focused on training for local jobs, 100,000 new two-year apprenticeships, a respected technical baccalaureate qualification, careers advice and technical degrees so that young people could earn and learn at the same time.
Meanwhile, in the same week, the coalition Government re-entered the apprenticeships fray. While welcoming the latest 200 school leavers to join the Civil Service Fast-Track Apprenticeship Scheme for 18-21 year-olds, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said he believed it was important that such schemes received the recognition they deserved, as they were a “clear step away from the barely concealed snobbery around vocational education”. He believes that “Apprentices make a fantastic contribution to our society and I want young people from every background to know that if they choose to pursue their career in the civil service, work hard and prove themselves, nothing should stop them from making their way right to the top.”
Whichever political side one is on, these aims are right. We have to provide active, attractive support for young people who don’t want to take academic studies further, but who want to find a useful role in life. Schools must therefore take up the baton and refocus some of their energies away from league tables and onto getting pupils prepared for more practical route into the future.