Apprenticeships could and should drive social mobility
Just last week, Justine Greening reasoned that social mobility is the biggest challenge facing Britain today and that any solution to meeting it must start with fundamental reforms to our education system.
Words are being met with action with the welcome launch of the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education and the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy.
An overhaul to work-based training, is both welcome and overdue particularly as we find our way in a post-Brexit world.
However, absent from much of the landscape of apprenticeships and technical education reforms is access for disadvantaged groups to these new, high-quality pathways.
High-quality is often translated as high-level. Talk of degree apprenticeships, Level 4 and above ‘T-Levels’ and the often-cited Rolls-Royce apprenticeship fuels this.
We support the raising of standards and expectations. The attainment of Level 3 should be the minimum end-point for all young people to progress in education, work and life.
But the facts remain:
- Over 40% of pupils leave school each year without good GCSEs in English and maths. This group is disproportionately represented by students eligible for Free School Meals
- Worse still, all students, regardless of background, struggle to catch-up. Only 22% of those who fail to attain an A*-C in these subjects at 16 go on to reach this or an equivalent level by year 13.
- Unsurprisingly, very few low-attaining students transition to higher-level study.
If apprenticeships standards are being created at Level 3 and beyond, great. But how do we then ensure all young people get the grades to apply for, experience and succeed in these pathways?
And what’s stopping businesses who contribute to the levy from prioritising recruitment at higher levels or re-badging existing schemes as apprenticeships, thereby reducing opportunities for those furthest away?
As it stands, if these new pathways are high-quality and at a high-level, rather than high-quality across all levels, a significant group of people will miss out.
The mention of a transition year is promising, but we don’t yet know what it will look like and how it will work. Until this is properly thought out, young people failing to achieve a Level 2 continue to be at most risk of being NEET today and losing out to automation tomorrow.
During its passage through Parliament, we proposed an amendment to the Technical and Further Education Bill charging the new Institute with the responsibility for tracking access, retention and progress in the new technical pathways and to work to close the gaps between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers. Our submission was withdrawn in debate.
We weren’t asking for precedent. Issues of access and progress are well-scrutinised in higher education, where progress has been made. We should demand nothing less for FE.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from HE, it is that arbitrary targets should not drive reform. 3 million apprenticeships starts would be great. But ensuring these starts convert into progress across all levels and sustained careers would be of greater value.
If the Institute views the challenge of increasing social mobility as highly as the Education Secretary, they would be well-minded to consider this.