If Gavin Williamson seriously wants the UK to match the technical and vocational education opportunities offered by Germany by 2029, he needs to address the persisting stigmatisation and stereotyping of apprentices, says Niamh Mulhall
As an apprentice I am all too aware of the perceptions and misconceptions surrounding apprenticeships. Young people are not just active consumers browsing the education and training supermarket and making choices based on price, quality and value; their decisions are influenced by a multitude of socio-structural constraints and, not least, by their family, friends and teachers.
Many professions could be almost exclusively apprenticeships if it weren’t for the marketisation of higher education that has turned degrees into lucrative courses for universities to sell. The fact that Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, refers to the “forgotten 50 per cent” – the half of young people who don’t go to university – reinforces a divide between academically-inclined students who go to university and the “others” who presumably will be trained to fill the jobs which his new skills and productivity board will tell him are needed for the modern economy.
In his first appearance in the Commons as prime minister, Boris Johnson, replying to a question from the former skills minister, Anne Milton, said: “The other kids should acquire the skills they need which can be just as valuable, can lead to just as fantastic careers.”
The other kids?
Last week, education minister Lord Agnew met engineering apprentices at Sunderland College. It says something about the lack of imagination of the government’s communications department that these publicity stunts always call for a hi-vis jacket and goggles – a far remove from the uniform the minister wore as a Rugby School pupil.
We must challenge the image of overalls and wrenches
Research by the charity Education and Employers and others consistently find careers advice, information and guidance in schools is scarce when it comes to apprenticeships. Most teachers have limited knowledge of them and don’t feel confident enough to suggest them to students. Factor in a school’s interest in retaining students into sixth form, and the default position is bias towards A-levels and university, something that I felt pressured to do.
Nearly two years ago, the Baker clause attempted to reset the balance, but just two in five schools are compliant and many training providers say it has had no impact in getting them access to schools.
We need to ensure that young people are aware of all the options. Having quality engagement with a breadth of employers and professionals throughout school life not only expands horizons, but can help to challenge stereotypical images of overalls and wrenches. This is just as true about gender where received perceptions of boys as doctors and girls as nurses are formed before the age of five and become ingrained; the job choices of seven-year-olds mirror those of 17-year olds.
Our research at The Apprentice Voice recently revealed that two-thirds (67.5 per cent) of apprentices still face stigmatisation or stereotyping, with 58 per cent saying the stigma came from colleagues and peers.
Williamson went to university, perhaps itself a testimony to the socially transformative effect of higher education advocated by Michael Gove and others all the way back to Tony Blair’s ambition for the “first” 50 per cent. Sadly, the reality for many is a university degree that doesn’t make them industry-ready, does not open the doors they hoped for and takes a long time to pay off.
Yes, we need quality apprenticeships above quantity and we need better careers education in schools so young people can make informed choices. But the fundamental difference between our vocational and technical education provision and Germany’s is that choosing an apprenticeship there is seen as a positive, not the second-best option that it is often perceived to be in the UK.
Until our policymakers model that attitudinal shift, the “other kids” will remain our ‘othered’ young people, and the chance to beat Germany will be lost to an own goal.