The apprenticeship PR still doesn’t match the vacancy numbers reality

Every summer, the news cycle shines its brief gaze on the exam results of our nation’s youth and those you wish to promote their specific routes for young people attempt to gain PR traction usually by doing down the other pathways on offer. This summer I found it noticeable the extent articles and headlines blamed poor careers advice specifically in relation for a perceived lack of interest or knowledge in young people about apprenticeships.

A number of articles highlighted the results of an online survey conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) that reported that 8% of 15-18 year olds were being advised to pursue the apprenticeship route and that 28% had never been spoken to by their school or college about apprenticeships. This was picked up by specialist sites such as FE News and mainstream press such as The Mirror. The quoted response from Alex Meikle, the Director of the ECA, was that “too many young people are effectively being led up the garden path by careers advice in schools, which is significantly out of step with the needs of industry and future employers.”

Elsewhere, Labour MP Frank Field was writing in the TES that A Level students had “been sold a pup” by schools and advisers due to the increasing rates of apprentice pay progression and employment opportunities compared to the weakening graduate labour market. The Managing Director of the NOCN, Graham Hastings-Evans, was also in the TES, claiming that it was “not too late” for students let down by poor careers advice to still apply for vocational and apprenticeship routes. And finally, the new Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, Anne Milton, took the opportunity in The Telegraph to promote the route and the Government’s work on the Skills Plan.

All of this attention is welcome for promoting the full variety of routes on offer to young people but, in their haste to do down careers advice as the reason that large numbers of young people are still following traditional paths the writers are conveniently forgetting a number of facts.

  1.  Large numbers of secondary school pupils would consider taking vocational routes post 16

pupil survey1

2. Significant proportions of young people who want to pursue vocational pathways are battling unsupportive parents (same source)

parents apprenticeships

3. For Level 3 students, the choice of Higher Apprenticeships is miniscule

apprenticeship vacancies by level

Using the above data from the GOV.UK FE Data Library we can see that there have only been 3908 Higher Apprenticeship vacancies advertises in the whole 17/18 year to date, 3810 in 15/16 and 2870 in 14/15. So Apprenticeship provision at this level is growing but compare this to the numbers of students transitioning from Level 3 into traditional Higher Education routes. For the 2017 application cycle, just from England the total of 18 & 19 year olds applying for Higher Education was 319,100.


The number of actual live Higher Apprenticeship vacancies in June 2017 when these young people were finishing their education courses or gap years and becoming available to the labour market? 590.

apprenticeship vacancies in june

To suggest that young people should take the apprenticeship route to protect against the waning wage benefit of graduate salaries is blindly ignoring the biggest hurdle facing those young people. There are nowhere near enough apprenticeship opportunities at that level for them to pursue.

4. Young people are registering on “Find an Apprenticeship” and applying for Apprenticeships in far greater numbers than the vacancies available

16-18 year olds are by the far the largest age group to register to be able to apply for Apprenticeship vacancies. 254,250 have registered in the year to date so far well on the way to the 280,200 who signed up in 15/16.

apprenticeship registrations by age1

This age group has, so far this year, gone on to make 939,630 applications.

apprenticeship registrations by age

5. We know that Apprenticeship employers favour hiring older applicants.

In 2015 Ofsted found that, “Under 19s made 56% of applications but only 27% of starts; 25+ made 7% of applications but 37% of starts” and that employers were reluctant to take on younger apprenticeship applicants as:

  • 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.

To recap, over a quarter of a millon 16-18 year olds are making over 900,000 applications, going up against 262,970 other 18+ applicants for 169, 290 apprenticeship vacancies. 

Let’s go back to those survey figures from the ECA, using the 2016 Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics national tables data we can see that there were 1,549,000 15-18 year olds in English schools last academic year. 8% of this figure is 123,920 pupils that self reported that they were being advised to attempt to secure an apprenticeship. The total number of apprenticeships advertised so far this year is 169,298, so, in reality, the pipeline of young people being advised to take this route is proportionate to the number of vacancies on offer.

All of this shows there is already far greater interest in apprenticeships from that age group than there is base line opportunities. The Director of the ECA, and others, need to acknowledge that the challenge for apprenticeship recruitment for young people is not a lack of awareness or knowledge of the route but

  1. A lack of support with the whole application process from on line form to interview
  2. A lack of work experience building opportunities
  3. A lack of social capital to source opportunities

And that is the work that takes time, qualified staff and funded resources all of which are much more difficult to understand, lobby for or support than just taking the easy option of bashing careers advice for not giving out information.

16/17 KS4 leavers and apprenticeship schemes

Now that we are a way into the 2016/2017 academic calendar it is a good time to look at a huge test for how the worlds of education and business interact over the coming months.

This academic years Key Stage 4 leavers will be the first to receive their GCSE grades in English Language, English Literature and Maths in the new grading system of 9 – 1. How this compares to the historic A-G grading system is show below


As the description says, this means that 16/17 leavers will receive a mixture of 9-1 and A-G grades from their GCSE qualifications. Students may also be taking Btec L2s (which report as Distinction, Merit, Pass) and other qualifications such as the much maligned ECDL so will also have different grading schemes in their set of results.

So, a student opening their results envelop in August 2017 might see something like this (from this Ofqual PP):


This will continue for 17/18 leavers as more GCSEs such as Art, the Sciences, Drama & Geography are accredited in the new manner and then into 18/19 as subjects such as Sociology, D&T & Engineering join them.

The wider impact of these changes throughout the systems of education and employment dependent on understanding the context of those grade indicators could be messy. Getting the message through about the changes to students and their parents is a challenge in itself and one which Ofqual has been keen to gain help from schools but the bigger challenge remains of explaining this to employers. Hints at the scale of the communication challenge can be found in the employer response to the forthcoming apprenticeship levy

If a new funding system that will directly impact a company’s bottom line and their immediate training pipeline is struggling to gain widespread understanding then a seemingly (to those outside education) superficial change to GCSE grading is a difficult concept to gain traction. As anybody working in careers in schools will attest, many speakers from employers still come into school and wish the students good luck in their “O Levels.”

This lack of understanding has immediate impacts. Over the past few and forthcoming weeks many of the school leaver and apprenticeship schemes from larger employers will begin to be advertised for September 2017 starts.

The Airbus Group Engineering Apprenticeships, the Glaxo SmithKline Engineering Apprenticehips and the Manufacturing Apprenticeship at Selex Leonardo are all open for applications at the time of writing (November 2017). All three schemes are for September or Summer 2017 starts, all three are open to applicants who will be leaving Key Stage 4 in summer 2017 and all 3 ask for A-C GCSE requirements.


Not a mention of 9-1 grades. Yet many of the opportunities at larger employer require applicants to apply via the employers own website where, on the GSK site, the 9-1 scale is mentioned:


These are just a few examples of the many schemes that will be opened to 16/17 leavers over the next few months. It may add complexity but HR managers need to be including the new grading system in their job descriptions and adverts to smooth applications from younger students. Otherwise mixed messages and the inflexibility of drop down menus on online applications holds potential to discourage and confuse 16/17 leavers and parents from engaging with apprenticeship routes.

In recent years, business organisations have successfully positioned business as a sphere that is keen to engage with education, dissatisfied with the current skills on offer from young workers and with the ability to rapidly react to change. Publications such as the annual CBI Education & Skills survey place the emphasis on what business requires from education. Well, over this application season building up to the summer results, education needs a rapid and clear response from business.



The moving employer bullseye for GCSEs

This years GCSE results have brought forth the usual comment and think pieces about the exact value and worth of exam grades on sign posting a young person’s future success. One of the most important voices in this period to shape the debate is always the CBI, the employer body with the ear of Government and seemingly the widest PR reach.

Their GCSE response this year bemoans, among other things, the removal of speaking and listening from the final English grades and how that, “more must be done to ensure a GCSE pass is an accurate measure of not just how well a young person does in the exam hall, but also the skills they can bring to the workplace.” They also request that, “schools should be judged not only on their position in the league tables, but how well-prepared young people are for life beyond the classroom” acknowledging the power that league tables have on school decision-making. Estelle Morris makes a similar point today in the Guardian,

“On the one hand, we bemoan a culture that only values the things that can be measured and we fret about the pressures placed on “the most examined generation of children”. Yet, on the other, when it is our children or our school, exams are hugely influential on the decisions we make.”

Seemingly this is true not just on the decisions education or parents make, but also on the decisions employers make

We all know the stories of the fantastically successful entrepreneur who left school with only a frayed tie and some crumpled detention slips to their name but, it seems, the odds are severely against these outliers.

Which takes me back to the CBI. Their call this year for more rounded school leavers, equipped with those vital employability skills (and a system that recognises schools progress towards achieving this) would find many agreeing murmurs from the Careers sector (even without mentioning their joint desire to see improvement in CEIAG) but it also shows how their view on exams results is evolving over time.

The 2013 CBI response also had an axe to grind (this time against early entries which brought a quick reaction from the DfE) but did try to bridge the gap between the importance of results and the importance of wider skills,

The plan to make GCSEs tougher, although necessary, is not an end in itself

Going back further, the 2012 CBI response acknowledges how changes in the system were then affecting pass rates but places the importance on attainment and standards,

“Improving attainment in our schools is critical to the future success of our economy and society. Raising ambition and aspiration for all should be the focus of our school system. Creating a thirst for learning and delivering a rigorous, meaningful curriculum is a national priority, which needs to be urgently tackled.”

While in 2011, the response the focus is solely placed on numeracy and literacy skills,

“It’s good to see the proportion achieving a C or above in Maths and English continuing to rise. Being able to show you have good ability in reading, writing and maths is more important than ever and opens the door to work or further study.

“However, too many students are still failing to pass Maths GCSE.

“With the highest number of young people for five years not in education, employment or training, we cannot afford for young people to miss out on basic Maths skills.

While there is a slightly Sisyphean nature to these evolving targets for GCSE exams to hit, now that many of the GCSE and league table reforms enacted by the DfE during this parliament are in place with the support of the CBI this call for a wider skills recognition and greater emphasis on preparation for a working life is a theme that will grow as we move towards the 2015 election (witness Tristram’s Hunt character education focus) and one that should benefit CEIAG in schools.


Some quick thoughts on the new #GCSE reform and post 16 progression

The latest in a tumult of change sweeping through all stages of England’s education system was announced this morning with the Ofqual consultation on which grades in the new GCSEs (1-9, with 9 being the best) will be equal to what grades under the old GCSEs (with the all important for the student C gateway).

A few possible implications regarding how these changes will affect the progression of young people onto the next stages of their learning and how CEIAG staff will have to adapt spring to mind.

So, bearing in mind that these will first be awarded to students in the summer of 2017 in English, English Literature and Maths GCSE only and that the content of the curriculum studied by these students for the 2 year course will have been more challenging than the predecessor and it will have been assessed purely on terminal exams rather than incorporating speaking and listening elements…

1. The proposal that a grade 4 will be equivalent to a grade C from the legacy qualification and a grade 7 will be equivalent to an A – will mean very different things depending on which side of the ‘C’ boundary a child falls. The increased number of grades (6 rather than 4) above the boundary will spread students achieving a “pass” out across these grades and give Sixth Forms and HE more scope to distinguish between higher achieving candidates for both A Level and Russell Group type degrees and between A Level courses even at the same institution, you may see a greater variance in entry requirements (History A Level courses asking for a “7 or above in GCSE History” for example rather a standard 5 or 6 across the other subjects).

For those below the  boundary it will be a different story. More children, to begin with, will be clumped across fewer grades below this raised standard and will therefore have the choice of Post 16 routes restricted. The Dfe believe that improving standards and changes to Key Stage 2 curriculum and tests will raise standards of attainment in the longer term but most people’s first conclusion will be that will see a larger proportion of students each year not have the choice of the full range of pathways open to them. The 4 A Level and higher vocational qualification route will not be possible for as many students as it is now and, because of the rules for English & Maths retakes, more students will see the options that are open to them become more prescribed. I fear there are implications for student motivation here in Key Stage 4 which CEIAG professionals will be at the forefront of addressing.

2. 2017 and 2016 is going to be a dogs dinner for CEIAG workers in Secondary schools – As it will only be new GCSEs in English Language, English Literature and Maths awarded this year, students will open their envelopes on results day to find a grade 1-9 in these qualifications but still be awarded A-G in any other GCSEs they will have taken such as History, Drama, Music etc. Many students will have also studied a L2 BTEC course so receive a Distinction, Merit, Pass or Fail in those subjects.

This will have repercussions as those students go on through the education system and their working lives but also in the long tail of guidance and build up to transition that pre-empt those results. How will Sixth Forms, FE Colleges and Apprenticeships Employers adjust their requirements to reflect this mix of new and old? Will they be able to communicate their requirements to feeder schools early enough so proper IAG can take place? How will these changes interact and impact with the changes to the A Level curriculum and the removal of the AS mid-point? Will Apprenticeship employers react in time to adjust their online application sites or be fully aware of the equivalent grades?

Of course this is still at the consultation stage and the Ofqual documents states that, ultimately, the decision on where the grading falls will be based on the feedback from employers and FE and HE. Meanwhile, for the students and those trying to advise them, there are lots of answers still to come.

2016 Accountability measures: the next battle for CEIAG in schools

EDIT – March 2014

Following today’s release of the 16-19 Accountability & Assessment plans, I though I would add an update to this post. The plans make it clear that Destination Measures will be one of the Accountability measures used in the 16-19 performance tables. Concerns about the robustness of the data are mentioned again (page 10) but the document contains a clear commitment to improve the validity of these statistics and incorporate them into the range of measures used by the DfE, Ofsted and (it is hoped) students and parents to assess the quality of provision. With such a commitment to secure it seems, to my mind, only a matter of time before Destination Measures will be incorporated into the secondary performance suite.


The Dfe recently published (October 2013) their long-awaited response to a consultation on changes to school accountability measures due to apply from the 2016 results season.

There has been a deep and general consensus across education that the current headline figure of a pass percentage for 5A*-C at GCSE (or equivalents) is a blunt tool of measurement that encouraged schools to streamline their curriculum or overweigh it with equivalent qualifications, focus on the attainment of a narrow band of students at the C/D borderline and could be ‘gamed’ to such an extent that it did not accurately reflect a school’s performance.

The reaction to the new proposals to include a Progress across 8 subjects measure, an Achievement across 8 subjects measure, the percentage passing English and Maths and the percentage passing the Ebacc suite of subjects has been extremely positive, even from those at the coal face of school leadership.

There is a paragraph in the document though that should give CEIAG leads in school a moment’s pause.

Page 7:

“We would also like to include a destination measure as a fifth headline indicator. This will show the percentage of pupils who went on to sustained education, employment or training during the year after they finished their Key stage 4 qualifications. We currently publish experimental statistics to show this information. We want to be sure the statistics are robust before committing to using this destination measure as a headline indicator.”

Only a few days later news broke that many Councils are failing in their duty to track 16-18 participation status, making it clear why the Dfe fears the current experimental statistics are not “robust” enough to be included as part of the headline suite of data about a school.

The tortured tale of CEIAG in schools over recent months has finally reached a juncture in the story where Ofsted are offering judgement on a school’s attempts to meet their Statutory Duty as part of their regular inspections. The consistency and worth of these judgments will be determined in time but it is, at least, happening. Many in the CEIAG field are awaiting the publication of the further guidance promised after the critical Ofsted survey yet, perhaps it may be the inclusion (or not) of destination data in these new accountability measures that will have a greater impact on school leaders consideration of CEIAG in their planning.  Guidance is, after all, only guidance and, if one thing is clear from this administration’s approach to education policy, it’s that the mantra of freedom rules.

The consultation reply also states that, as well as being published on the dedicated league table website (hopefully in greater detail), these headline destination figures will be placed

On each school’s website, we will make sure there is a ‘snapshot’ of their performance in a standard format, so parents can quickly understand a school’s effectiveness.

The power this simple website addition will hold over Headteachers should not be under estimated: 5 clear figures, displayed on the front page of their school website, easily compared with other schools. Destination data has to be a one of those 5 figures for the progress we have seen to continue and for CEIAG to retain its growing importance in school leader’s minds. This rests on the actual data being collated and being “robust” enough to convince the Dfe of its worth. This is an area that those who attempt to influence CEIAG policy should be taking a keen interest in.

How does the CEIAG community feel about early and multiple GCSE entry from an employability standpoint?

Careers guidance in schools is tied to a (sometimes) unmovable anchor; the framework of routes, options and qualifications that each school either offers or requires it’s students to study. To further complicate this mix of multiple Key Stage 4 pathways and compulsory BTECs are the early and multiple entry for core subjects that an increasingly large number of schools are asking their pupils to take and retake in a long treadmill towards that 5A*-C milestone and the glory of those top school league table positions.

The statistics and comment on the recent GCSE results have opened the debate both of the value of these practices and the impact on the education of the learners involved. My question is, how does the Careers education and guidance community feel this impacts the career readiness of young people?

On the one hand you have the CBI no less (an organisation that must surely guide the thinking of those of us in schools endeavoring to close the gap to the business community) being extremely disparaging in their criticism of multiple entry and continuous exam preparation.


“The sheer scale of multiple and early entries is astonishing. Employers don’t want exam robots – they want young people who are academically stretched, rounded and grounded.

“Turning schools into exam factories and cramming two years’ syllabus into one benefits no one. A GCSE should be an assurance of ability, not a consolation prize for surviving months of continual testing and retesting.”

The alternative of terminal, all or bust, one chance exams is the clear preferred scenario of the current Dfe administration and one they are moving towards with each of their reforms. The belief is that this will enable teachers to open new depths of study for pupils as they are not continually jumping through the next hoop on the path of exam preparation drudgery. Yet, this structure is one unrecognisable to anyone learning their way through a working life or educating young people about those working lives. Professor Patrick McGhee concisely covered this in a few tweets on results day:


Of course, the wiser, more considered minds will stress the need for balance between these two positions. A qualification framework that offers variety of assessment methods but tied to a public accountability measure unplayable by school leaders which, by extension, grows the best of employability and entrepreneurial skills in each learner. Unfortunately it seems that the extremes of the current debate, the stresses on the exam system, the pressure of league tables and the sheer will of schools to find whatever chink in the armour of regulation they can mean that any compromise is deemed a “muddle” and a decisive shift towards one position or another is the solution. Will an outcome of this story be the erosion of the career preparedness of young people?

GCSE RESULTS DAY: Prepare your IAG war face


GCSE results day is a strange beast for IAG workers in schools.

The build up is like preparing for battle, your presence on the day is expected, advertised and relied upon, your target audience is tense, your colleagues are tense, everybody is REALLY TENSE…the appointed hour arrives…and then…the vast majority of students pay you absolutely no attention at all.

Admist the post envelope opening screams of joy and relief I usually find myself strolling through the crowd, giving out the odd “well done” and matey backslaps of congratulations to young people who visibly lift from the weight of stress being removed from their shoulders. Groups of them hug and cheer and scramble to grab their phones from their pockets to pass on the good news to their parents blissfully unaware of my presence.

All that is, apart from the occasional student. As you pause in the crowd you begin to notice the ones who have stepped back from their group of friends. Those who are hiding their results printouts close to their chest and not lost in a frenzy of sharing and comparing grades.

Those are the students who, subtly, with a glance or a quick “ok?” frown, I try to make contact with. The expectation in the build up to results day means that many young people will be reluctant to admit that things have gone wrong or that they have not achieved all that they had hoped.

Those that are brave enough to wear their disappointment on their sleeves soon find themselves comforted by teachers or tutors. Sometimes these bawling bundles of despondancy are sign posted on to me but sometimes they prefer to talk to a favourite teacher. On a past results day, a young man who had set himself extremely high standards, missed out on some of those top grades and was clearly upset. In that instance he was quite clearly being ably advised by his English teacher who, after speaking to me briefly to confirm entry requirements for the A Level pathways to medical routes, then went back to the student. The IAG happened and it happened it a way right for the student.

The quieter ones, those more reluctant to advertise their unease, are the students from whom I learn more about how to approach difficult IAG conversations and how best to structure an interaction so it finishes on a positive expectation of action.

Of course, it’s hard to catch every student that wants or needs to discuss things on the morning. In the days after, I find parents and students will get in touch through the school email, sometimes just to confirm small things about enrollment at Colleges, so I check regularly. Small hint here: I wouldn’t advise stumbling about for thirty  minutes outside the main arena at Reading Festival trying to get a good web signal on your phone.

Results day is a wonderful morning of celebration and achievement and during the very best of them, I have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do.