Apprenticeship reform starts with the school calendar

23 Mar 2022, 6:00

The apprenticeship cycle needs to move in line with university applications, writes Jo Foster

To kick-start apprenticeships in this country we need to be bold. Today, there is a stigma around apprenticeships where they are seen as “less than” a university degree. The perceived wisdom is that a student who wants to progress in life goes to university ̶ for many it is seen as the only option.

In 2020, a Department for Education study found that 48 per cent of parents polled “worried” about the future earning potential of their children if they went down the apprenticeship route.

Furthermore, 35 per cent of parents still associated apprenticeships with manual jobs, and 45 per cent did not know you could earn a degree via an apprenticeship.

This is not only a huge shame for young people of all abilities and their life chances; if the country is to become a science superpower, we need an army of technicians and lab scientists to accomplish that ̶ and apprenticeships are key to making that happen.

On the continent, university and apprenticeships are regarded on an even footing. In the UK, teachers and senior leaders (including those inspecting schools) need to be supported to understand the huge opportunity and breadth available in apprenticeships.

On the continent, university and apprenticeships are regarded on an even footing

Apprenticeships are suitable for all types of young people and are absolutely not second best. This is a particular issue for science, as many students who are suitable for science apprenticeships are highly likely to be applying for a university course.

To match-make apprenticeships between students and businesses more effectively, reform needs to start with the school calendar.

The apprenticeship cycle needs to move in line with university applications, or in advance of them. Apprenticeships should be made available in June and July, students interviewed in autumn, to start the following September.

The current cycle makes no sense – we need to give young people certainty over apprenticeship places before the university application process.

These students will almost certainly accept their university place so as not to take the risk of holding out for an apprenticeship place.

Here’s how it would work well. In year 11, students should be encouraged to make clear what subjects and routes they’re exploring to give an indication to schools and colleges of what might be needed to meet their demand.

This could be shared with a regional apprenticeship lead (roles like this currently exist in many areas) or the education business partnership hub to ensure local knowledge about business and industry requirements is fully incorporated. 

At the start of year 12, students thinking of an apprenticeship should be able to apply online, specifying what they are interested in and where.

Regional hubs can use this information to approach small and medium-sized enterprises in the local area and match them up with relevant students.

The apprenticeships available could be offered to students, with an application process in areas of high demand, in the summer before students start year 13.

Interviews could take place in August and September and places confirmed at the end of September, before university places are offered.

This approach would need full government backing, most likely through the DfE, but there are huge advantages to investing in this, not least as it would result in spending the apprenticeship levy in a far more effective way.

Nationally, this would make apprenticeships more widely available, particularly in science, to students of all abilities and backgrounds, and there would be far fewer young people not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Locally, this would ensure apprenticeships in local areas match local business need, it would get more SMEs involved in the programme, and it would be particularly impactful in areas of deprivation where families may be unwilling to incur debt from university.

What stops students signing up to an apprenticeship is an overly opaque system

It’s widely known that careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) increase social mobility – so it’s a double whammy in the case of science apprenticeships.

This would also be of financial benefit to SMEs, giving them support to increase capacity and bounce back from the disruption caused by coronavirus.

Often, what stops students from signing up to an apprenticeship is a system that is overly opaque and bureaucratic.

Apprenticeships must reform to engage young adults by becoming easier to apply for and more relevant locally.



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  1. The perceived gap in parity of esteem between apprenticeships and university would be better handled by educating young people and parents about the lifelong impact of student debt. Students graduating in England in 2021, left with an average of £45,000 of debt and interest rates are pegged to inflation.

    The decision of which path to choose should be making itself. Perhaps the answer actually lies in schools equipping young people with better mathematical skills and financial awareness. I can’t see that requiring employers to fit their hiring choices and timing around the school calendar is going to achieve much!