Selling apprenticeships to young people is one thing, and selling them to parents is another. Kirstie Donnelly considers how the FE and skills sector might improve the programme’s chances of being sold.

Two reports were launched this month highlighting, in different ways, the fact that there is a desperate need to increase the value of the apprenticeship brand if the system is to be allowed to achieve its potential.

Firstly, came the Education Select Committee report on traineeships and apprenticeships which warned that constant talk of apprenticeships as a means to tackle youth unemployment risked painting them as a second class option.

While it’s great that apprenticeships seem to be fixed firmly on the agenda we must ensure that there is a clear focus on increasing quality

The report also warned against sacrificing quality for quantity, an important point as all the political parties promise significant increases in apprenticeship numbers post-election.

While it’s great that apprenticeships seem to be fixed firmly on the agenda we must ensure that there is a clear focus on increasing quality if they are to truly meet the needs of industry and learners in the future.

We also have to make sure that government isn’t making changes to the system without good reason. That’s something that has been hugely damaging to the image of apprenticeships in the past.

So what should the government do?

I was part of the second report that was launched — the Demos report on Lord Glasman’s commission on apprenticeships. It found that just a fifth of parents had been told about apprenticeships by their child’s school.

This bias against apprenticeships is well documented, and isn’t shocking as schools are largely staffed with university graduates. If teachers have only experienced one pathway to a career, how can they be expected to advise on others? And it doesn’t help that school league tables count pupils who follow the academic route as a success but ignores other positive outcomes.

That’s why the Demos report called for three things.

Firstly, a high-quality public sector careers service; secondly, a chance for all 14 to 16year-old students to take a vocational subject alongside academic study; and thirdly, improved monitoring of school-leavers to find out how their choices have affected their careers.

I strongly support these recommendations and think that they will go a long way towards a fairer system that values academic and vocational education equally.

But it’s not just the Government that has a role to play. The FE sector has three clear responsibilities.

We need, firstly, to work closely with employers to create an apprenticeship system that meets their needs. The FE sector has the skills and the experience, even dare I say the creativity to design programmes that can deliver the quality teaching and support. Employers have the understanding of the outcomes their industries truly need and the detailed insight as to what is really required. It’s important that we demonstrate as a sector that we understand these needs and can respond to them. If we don’t, we could end up being cut out of the equation, which would only lead to poorer quality apprenticeships. We must ensure that we focus very clearly on outcomes, both for the employer and the learner.

Secondly, we need to get the message out there about how great apprenticeships are. The Demos report also found that whilst 90 per cent of parents think apprenticeships are a good option for young people, less than a third would be happy for their own child to do one. This is hardly surprising, as 86 per cent of respondents said they felt that apprenticeships were for less able students. What parent would want their child to limit their life chances by encouraging them to take a route they believed to be second rate?

What few parents realise though is that doing an apprenticeship could net their child a starting salary of more than £30k and the opportunity to avoid student debt that often totals more than £44k.

And thirdly, we need to champion higher apprenticeships. For apprenticeships to be recognised as high quality by learners and employers we need to promote higher apprenticeships so we have a system that gives access to the UK’s top jobs. This way, it can become a genuine alternative to a degree.

If we can create a gold standard in apprenticeships, ensuring they are the highest quality and improve how they are perceived, we are also opening the doors for the learners to be fairly remunerated and increasing their earning power in the longer term. This is ultimately the very best way to win over parents and young people.

It’s clear from both the reports that there is a lot of work to be done to secure the future of apprenticeships. The education sector, businesses and policymakers need work together to promote apprenticeships as a first-rate option to be considered by all young people.

We have a real opportunity in our hands right now. We won’t get all the solutions from government and we shouldn’t expect to. We must take control and work more collaboratively with each other, and importantly, with employers.

If we do this then we will be able to ensure that our sector finally gets the recognition it deserves, and most importantly, that the learners get the futures they deserve.