Apprentice hopefuls face GCSE barrier

Colleges and training providers who “rigidly” demand higher grade GCSEs for the most basic of apprenticeships have come in for criticism from government vocational training adviser Professor Alison Wolf.

An apparently growing number of adverts for intermediate apprenticeships are asking for maths and English GCSEs of at least grade C or D, FE Week research has found.

The restrictions would have closed the door on career opportunities for the 40 per cent (249,164) of 2011/12’s GCSE cohort who failed to achieve A*-C in English and maths.

Professor Wolf, author of a landmark independent government review of 14 to 19 vocational education in 2011, called on providers to take a broader view of applicants’ abilities.

The King’s College London academic told FE Week: “Maths and English are enormously important to people’s lives and prospects, but of course are not the only things that matter. In selecting young people for increasingly popular apprenticeship places, it is surely crucial to look at all the relevant skills and experience each applicant can offer, not use just one or two criteria as a rigidly applied filter.”

Sector standards setting bodies and the Skills Funding Agency impose no such GCSE requirement for apprenticeships.

However, by law all intermediate apprenticeship frameworks require that learners without level one (equivalent to GCSE grade D to G) maths and English pass them during the course, typically as functional skills qualifications.

Roger Francis, business development director at functional skills specialist Creative Learning Partners Ltd, said he was “very concerned about what appears to be a growing trend”.

“Young people who desperately need this type of opportunity are being excluded,” he said.

“For a qualification designed to encourage diversity and inclusivity, this is very disturbing.”

He added: “I can’t help but feel some providers may be going down this path to avoid delivering functional skills which they find challenging and financially unrewarding.

“It would be tragic if learners were missing out on the opportunity to raise their skill levels… simply because a number of providers were unable to find a successful delivery model.”

Former Dragons’ Den investor Doug Richard proposed an A*-C grade GCSE requirement (or equivalent level two), in his independent review of apprenticeships last year, but said it should be needed in order to pass the apprenticeship. However, he also warned there was a risk “some employers or providers will ‘cherry pick’ those learners who already have level two”.

He added: “We must make sure that training in maths and English continue to be free and easily available.”

Westminster Kingsway College and Intraining, owned by NCG (formerly Newcastle College Group), have several roles with the A*-C GCSE requirement on the National  Apprenticeship Vacancy Matching Service, but said this was due to employer expectations.

However, FE Week has found several examples where it appears the requirement came from the provider.

Sheffield College and College of North West London require grade D maths and English within their published progression policy for apprenticeships.

Sheffield College described its entry requirements as “a general guide”.

The College of North West London said: “We do not generally enrol people onto apprenticeships without at least a GCSE grade D in maths and English… as our experience shows [these] apprentices are far less likely to succeed.”

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Editorial: Questionable barriers

It did not take long searching the government’s apprenticeship vacancy website before I found numerous adverts for level two frameworks with A* to C GCSE English and maths requirements.

The adverts range from a high street bank and supermarket to local cafes and even colleges employing their own apprentices.

In fact, at the time of checking there were 64 level two retail apprenticeship adverts with this criteria alone.

I was both surprised and shocked.

Some colleges have defended the practice, saying ultimately they will support all young people in need.

But with these barriers, and therefore no application possible, who would they have to support?

And worst case scenario, the young person is left believing this is a national requirement so does not look for an alternative provider.

Just yesterday one young person tweeted: “I want an apprenticeship but you need English and maths so slight problem.”

This tweet brings home the fact there are young people being excluded from gaining work and training, for being underqualified.

Imagine yourself as a young person in that trap.

You can’t get onto an apprenticeship to learn and gain qualifications without already having achieved them.

Before this becomes an even bigger problem perhaps the sector standards setting bodies need to determine not only the framework contents, but also restrict the use of inappropriate pre-entry requirements?

Nick Linford, editor of FE Week

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Listen to the recording of Nick Linford and Doug Richard being interview on BBC Radio 4 Today programme at 6:50am on September 6, 2013

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