The narrative around schools and apprenticeships needs to change

In an Ofsted report about Apprenticeships that pulls no punches in appropriating blame across stakeholders, careers advice in schools has taken (yet another) admonishing for not “promoting” apprenticeships.

There are still far too few 16- to 18-year-olds starting an apprenticeship. Recruitment onto apprenticeships for young people in this age range has remained static for more than a decade. Interviews with apprentices and evidence from secondary school inspections in 2014/15 showed that schools’ poor promotion of apprenticeships is depriving pupils and their parents of information about the full range of options available through the apprenticeship route. Secondary schools are still not doing enough to promote apprenticeships to young people. Inspectors found that careers advice and guidance were not sufficiently detailed and too few pupils experienced high-quality work experience as part of their compulsory education.

So far, so heard it all before. The accepted narrative goes that apprenticeships are a well-kept secret, a route that thousands of young people would happily opt for if only they knew about them and it’s mean-spirited schools that are keeping a lid on all this goodness so that school leavers stay in their sixth forms and kept the funding dollars rolling in.

So, if that were the whole story, it would mean…

Apprenticeships are all great

The main focus of the report looks at the quality of apprenticeships and tries to offer balance by being clear on the benefits of good apprenticeships and how much young people value them

 The most successful apprenticeships seen were for young people aged 16 to 24, especially in motor vehicle, engineering and construction – sectors that have historically relied on apprenticeships for their future skilled workforce. Younger apprentices working in these sectors told inspectors that their apprenticeships were enabling them to forge a new career, with increasingly challenging tasks as their apprenticeship progressed.

but also draws attention to the large numbers of poor quality ones as well

The quality of the apprenticeship provision reviewed during this survey was too variable and often poor. Some apprenticeships were of a high quality and provided young people with good training that enabled them to develop new skills and knowledge in specialist vocational areas. However, too much provision was weak and failed to provide sufficient training to develop substantial new skills

Ofsted found that in a third of the 45 providers they visited, apprenticeships were not of a sufficient quality. Four of the 8 independent training providers and four of the 10 colleges they visited provided too little training for learners. In 7 of the weaker providers, inspectors found apprenticeships that fell below national funding requirements.

No 16-18 year olds bother applying for them

Nope. Mentioned in the report itself is the fact that

Nationally, considerably more 16- to 18-year-olds apply for apprenticeships than those aged 25 and over, but far fewer become apprentices.

as

Under 19s made 56% of applications but only 27% of starts; 25+ made 7% of applications but 37% of starts (in 2014)

the reasons given for this disparity in the numbers actually taken on by employers is that

When asked why they did not recruit more 16- to 24-year-old apprentices, nearly a quarter of employers who responded said that young people did not have the basic skills, attitudes and behaviours required for work. Additionally, the employers interviewed frequently said that they were reluctant to take a young apprentice straight from school. Two factors dominated their rationale for this.

They believed too many 16-year-old school leavers lacked personal presentation and communication skills, or gave the impression at interview that they were immature and unreliable.

They recognised that employing an apprentice required a significant investment in time to train them in the generic employability skills and did not feel they could afford this.

and that employers were too keen on taking Government funding to accredit existing training schemes for the over 25s.

The ones that are informed enough to apply must have the pick of the quality roles then

Nope

The number of both registrations and applications from the under 19 age group has always vastly outnumbered the vacancies on offer and (in 13/14) just 2% of apprenticeship starts were at the Higher level (page 7).

The story needs to move on

The simple narrative that the problems that beset 16-19 Apprenticeships are a “demand” problem are wide of the mark. From the data above and this report we could conclude that the two intertwining factors that are now putting the brakes on what should be a fantastic pathway are:

  1. Too many of the applicants (and their applications) are not up to the standard employers demand
  2. The entrenched views that employers have on youngsters work readiness means they are unwilling to consider committing the time and effort into possible candidates from that age group

This perceived (and in many cases actual) lack of employability skills of students is an issue careers education (including employer input) should be stepping up to the mark to solve. Elsewhere in the report Ofsted cites UKCES survey findings that only 18% of UK businesses were involved in any work inspiration activities (p134) (while only 16% offer any sort of apprenticeships (p 149). Other research into school & business interaction has found a range of figures. The issues around CEIAG over the past few years have been detailed in-depth across the sector not least on this blog. The small numbers of 16-19 year olds successfully applying for apprenticeships is the outcome of both of these scenarios.

In the meantime, what am I promoting to young people?

Currently, a route that is highly competitive, that offers a slim chance of successfully achieving their goal and, in too many cases, a goal that isn’t even what it says on the tin.

In short, until the quality and quantity of apprenticeships realistically available to the 16-19 age group increases and the level of CEIAG provision also improves in quality, there are going to be many times when conversations in schools about apprenticeships are in danger of doing a good impression of this:

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3 comments

  1. As a careers adviser, I feel that although apprenticeships are a wonderful way to earn and learn, I feel that the application system is quite daunting to secondary school leavers. The amount of applying online using the unfriendly national website and to individual providers can be overwhelming.

    Many of my students understand the value of apprenticeships, but end up going for the ‘easy option’ of college. This is despite me offering to support them in the process. Maybe providers need to take more of a lead and take applications from students at all times of the year, whether they have vacancies of not and then follow them up when suitable positions become available; similar to recruitment matching. It would mean that schools could run groupwork sessions that cover applying to apprenticeships.

    1. Hi Ali,

      There’s a lot in your comment that I think most CEIAG practitioners would definitely agree with about young people viewing it as a “harder” route to follow compared to College. The timing of vacancies paying no heed to the academic year is an issue too.

      I think though, there’s a debate to be had among career practitioners about how involved with motivating, enthusing and downright nagging we should be to lead more young people further into the apprenticeship application cycle with stronger applications. Information sharing and hoping that something happens isn’t enough, time and resources need to be committed to individual (or group in your example) support at getting those applications to a higher standard.

  2. Yes, I completely agree. I am in a fortunate position being employed by an academy where I get to know the students and can offer employability workshops and sessions, which is great. However, I know a lot of careers advisers are still being bought in by schools, where they are expected to offer a batch of targeted interviews a day; group session are seen as expensive and do not ‘tick the boxes’, therefore not offered. Preparing students for the world of work has become increasingly difficult, with careers differing so much in each institution, it has become a postcode lottery.

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