Colleges must embrace their central role in making apprenticeships more inclusive

A rise in apprenticeship popularity must be matched by increased efforts to make them more accessible to neurodivergent learners, writes Mesay Gashaw

A rise in apprenticeship popularity must be matched by increased efforts to make them more accessible to neurodivergent learners, writes Mesay Gashaw

19 Jun 2023, 5:00

The popularity of apprenticeships has soared since the introduction of the levy in 2017. Nevertheless, it is disconcerting that neurodivergent individuals who are keen on pursuing these opportunities have limited accessibility. To fix that, we need to start by shedding light on the challenges they encounter.

Lately, there has been a significant shift in the mindset of many learners, who are now favouring apprenticeship as their preferred path for progression. Students can earn while they learn, gain industry-specific skills and avoid the burden of high student loans. Successful completion leads to a recognised qualification and enhances job prospects. And they are accessible to a wide range of learners from level 2 to level 7, making them an appealing and well-defined pathway.

But what of the 15 per cent of the population thought to be neurodiverse. Education settings have been working to improve their inclusiveness over decades, but there is still plenty of scope for improvement. In addition, apprenticeships involve employers, many of whom have never engaged in this kind of work. Are they ready to meet the standards we set, let alone to help us to keep driving those standards up?

The first thing to note is that neurodiversity varies from person to person and represents a spectrum of needs, from hidden disabilities to more severe impairments. Across the sector though, our current programmes to support learners to find apprenticeship opportunities remain intrinsically very generic. Indeed, my experience indicates that they are broadly devoid of factoring in the spectrum of needs of neurodivergent learners.

A one-size-fits-all approach is clearly inadequate when addressing the needs of neurodivergent learners. These individuals require personalised guidance and support to make informed decisions about their education and career paths beyond their FE studies.

Another key barrier is systemic. Higher-level apprenticeships are to all intents and purposes off-limits for many neurodivergent learners who have completed level 3 vocational courses and struggled to achieve a grade 4 at GCSE or a level 2 in functional skills for maths, English or both.

A one-size-fits-all approach is clearly inadequate

Mencap has suggested that, where there is no industry standard regarding English and maths, neurodivergent learners’ abilities to meet the requirements of the job should be re-assessed. This is certainly an area where FE providers could work with employers to increase access. In the meantime, however, many neurodivergent learners remain ineligible for the level 3 and higher apprenticeship opportunities due to rigid criteria.

A third barrier that could be removed very quickly relates to support networks. Lack of tailored support and industry standards often result in neurodivergent learners turning to their parents or other sources for guidance and support into work, but these support networks can be limited – not least with regards to the information required to navigate the complex apprenticeships system on a level footing with their peers.

According to Scope, the disability employment gap is 29 per cent. This is even more pronounced for neurodivergent learners from disadvantaged groups. As a recent Guardian article highlighted, people from BAME backgrounds continue to face barriers to accessing apprenticeships – even without learning difficulties.

The rise in the popularity of apprenticeships, and the distinct advantages these qualifications confer, require us to think carefully about how our improving culture of inclusion can grow to encompass the specific demands of these qualifications.

Part of that is up to the DfE, who as part of their SEND and AP review must surely also revise the current ‘Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for England’ to remove unnecessary restrictions.

But there is a lot that we can and should be doing to customise our support structures in FE settings to offer personalised and sufficient assistance for neurodivergent students. We must establish policies that guarantee equal access to support and guidance for every learner, based on their unique needs.

And we must work with employers to make apprenticeships more inclusive. Big employers like Microsoft, Ernst and Young, JPMorgan Chase, and GCHQ are at the forefront of this work, but the many SMEs who form the backbone of apprenticeships and the economy need our help to follow suit.

The growing popularity of apprenticeships is a success story for the sector and for the economy, and we must ensure that this success is shared with every young person irrespective of needs.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *