MPs have delivered a stark reminder that there remains “an underlying assumption that vocational training is only for those unable to take an academic route”.
Members of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee made the comments after an investigation into the government’s apprenticeships programme.
In their report, the MPs call for the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) to be given a statutory role to raise awareness of apprenticeships in schools and says the Department for Education (DfE) must do more to help schools promote them as a viable option to students.
Last year, £1.2 billion was invested by government in the apprenticeship programme and more than 457,000 people started training as an apprentice.
The NAS is jointly overseen by the DfE, which has responsibility for apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds, and the Department for Business, Innovations and Skills, which oversees courses for older learners. In 2010/11, 132,000 learners aged up to 19 started an apprenticeship compared to 143,000 aged 19 to 24 and 182,000 aged over 25.
However, the MPs point to Association of Colleges research which found that just seven per cent of pupils are able to name apprenticeships as a post-GCSE option compared with 63 per cent of young people who are able to name A levels.
The report states: “Apprenticeships should be an attractive option for school-leavers and we acknowledge that the Education Act 2011 requires schools to provide careers advice on apprenticeships.
“That said, there remains an underlying assumption that vocational training is only for those unable to take an academic route. This is wrong and must be changed. The academic route and the vocational route should be given equal prominence in careers advice.”
Currently the duty on informing students about apprenticeship options rests with schools, and NAS chief executive David Way told MPs during their investigation that the NAS’s role was one of support rather than leading this work.
However, MPs say that this must change: “The NAS should be a familiar name, known to all students and teachers as an authoritative source of information about apprenticeships.”
MPs also want schools to be required to publish information showing how many students move on to apprenticeships, alongside data showing those pursuing university education. They are worried that schools still promote the A level-higher education routes because they are “measured, primarily, by A level attainment and the number of university places gained by each academic year”.
The report calls on the DfE to do more to “assist schools in the promotion of vocational training in the curriculum”. It adds: “It should also ensure that any changes to the secondary curriculum will put proper emphasis and value on pupils taking a vocational route in their careers.”
However, some fear that the DfE’s focus on the English Baccalaureate measure of academic subjects, and on A level and university admission rates, has done nothing to bring parity of esteem for vocational education.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The MPs (are) right when they say that high quality vocational training should be seen on a par with academic achievement and should be promoted within schools as such.
“The direction that Michael Gove is taking with school examination reform will not make this message easy to get across. The proposed EBacc ... has the potential to demotivate many students, creating a two-tier system.”
The MPs add: “Apprenticeships are a viable and attractive route to a career and should be seen as equal to the university route. It is the responsibility of the government, our schools and the NAS to make sure they are presented in this way at an early stage in the curriculum.”
Elsewhere, the report also attacks the NAS for focusing too much on apprenticeship numbers, rather than the quality of courses. It states: “The NAS has accepted that its priority in the past has been increasing the number of apprentices and the number of employers taking on apprentices. We recommend an urgent review of the objectives and priorities of NAS.”
MPs also said that we must provide more higher and advanced apprenticeships, rather than focusing on entry-level courses.
Responding to the report, Mr Way said: “Working closely with the Skills Funding Agency we have reviewed quality across the apprenticeship programme. Together, we have raised standards and taken strong action to tackle any poor provision. We will continue to work hard to ensure that apprenticeships offer an excellent return on investment for the public purse as well as meeting the needs of the growing number of employers who offer apprenticeship opportunities.
“In partnership with employers and other key audiences we will actively promote apprenticeships as a prestigious and positive choice for young people who are considering their career opportunities.”
Chairman of the Select Committee, Adrian Bailey MP, said: “Young people in this country should be given every chance to fulfil their potential in school, in work and in life. An apprenticeships programme that is fit-for-purpose will help them do this.”
Skills minister Matthew Hancock added: “I welcome this timely and thorough investigation into apprenticeships, and will consider carefully its suggestions to help make the programme even more successful. We have asked entrepreneur Doug Richard to report later this year on what more we must do to ensure the apprenticeship programme delivers the rigorous, high-quality service we all want to see.”
Paul Davies, Institution of Engineering and Technology: “Young people and their parents must be confident that the career path they choose will lead to a real job and exciting opportunities. We need to promote the fact that a high-quality apprenticeship can be just the beginning of a rewarding engineering career.
Companies need to provide clear career progression routes through further education, experience and training to enable the best to meet the needs of the business and to reach the heights of the engineering profession.”
Jill Stokoe, Association of Teachers and Lecturers: “There should be a clear distinction between real apprenticeship programmes and ‘cheap labour’ that may lead to an apprenticeship. In order to establish both the credibility and quality of apprenticeship programmes, more places should be made available to the 16 to 24 age group and apprenticeships must lead to sustainable jobs.”
Tim Thomas, EEF (a manufacturers organisation): “The NAS has a key role to play in raising awareness of apprenticeships and should engage with schools to help relay this message, but it can’t do this on its own. Over half of manufacturing companies offer apprenticeships to young people to get them into the industry, so they are well placed to go into schools to speak about the opportunities associated with undertaking an apprenticeship and these relationships should be encouraged.”
Download the report at www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/business-innovation-and-skills/