Let’s celebrate skills training for what it is, not what it isn’t

Renewed attention on the importance of the skills sector is encouraging, says Jonathan Mitchell, but the language of academic equivalence has to go

Renewed attention on the importance of the skills sector is encouraging, says Jonathan Mitchell, but the language of academic equivalence has to go

19 Nov 2022, 5:00

It was joyful to hear King Charles and Jay Blades commending the importance and value of skills education and apprenticeships when they appeared in a recent episode of the BBC’s The Repair Shop.

Those of us working on technical education hear such comments almost daily; apprenticeships and technical qualifications are increasingly widely recognised as a great way for individuals to set themselves up for rewarding careers.

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, the response is almost always a wish for more apprenticeship and training opportunities, better promoted to school leavers.

But despite overwhelming enthusiasm, something strange happens when people define the skills system. Instead of unpacking the benefits of learning employer-specified knowledge, skills and behaviours as a preparation for working life, the implicit message seems to be that no one who could follow a high-prestige “academic” pathway would choose vocational education and training instead.

Indeed, the King mentioned on The Repair Shop that technical education is vital because “not everybody is designed for the academic”. It’s a familiar refrain, often emanating from government sources themselves. And it worries me, because what people hear is that there’s a hierarchy of educational pathways in which technical education is second-rate.

Likewise for T level qualifications. They cover the knowledge and skills employers say are necessary, and provide learners with a much-loved substantial industry placement to build workplace know-how. But it’s rare for T levels to be promoted on the basis of these characteristics. Rather, we are told that they are “equivalent to 3 A levels”. Similarly, degree apprenticeships are described as “equivalent to” a full bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Apprentices are not refugees from an academically straitjacketed alternative

We must call time on this tendency to spotlight what apprenticeships and technical qualifications are not when seeking to explain what they are. Nearly 90 per cent of 2,000 apprentices surveyed by IfATE are confident that what they are learning will benefit their career. There’s no need to trade on the borrowed prestige of other pathways to convey the allure of what’s on offer.

Besides, the comparisons don’t stand up. Degree apprenticeships aren’t “equivalent to” bachelor’s or master’s degrees: they combine a very real, full bachelor’s or master’s degrees with the additional benefit of workplace experience and accountability, and a salary for each apprentice. Likewise, T levels give students access to real, sustained workplace experience that sets them apart from their peers – something no A Level replicates.

So it’s not asking too much of those considering these qualifications to appreciate the additionality – not the equivalence – of what’s on offer.

The whole range of technical qualifications and apprenticeships approved by IfATE aren’t merely for those for whom the “academic” pathway is not a good fit. They are for anyone whose aspiration is to train confidently for a rewarding career in any of more than 650 occupations.

Consider the range of pre-apprenticeship experience in IfATE’s apprentice panel, who published the results and recommendations from its national apprentice survey last week. They include a national handball player who earned straight grade 9s at GCSE and moved straight into a civil engineering apprenticeship, a former Paralympian, now apprentice solicitor…

What connects them is not that they are all refugees from an academically-straitjacketed alternative pathway. Rather, it’s that they were driven and ready enough to get out into the workplace to achieve their ambitions. They’ll have learned alongside experienced colleagues, earned a wage and developed workplace know-how that will form the basis of flourishing careers.

I don’t think anyone needs reminding that “the academic route is not for everyone” to discern the deeper wisdom of their choice.

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One comment

  1. Mark Burgess

    A very good ariticle.
    Parents and students alike are in the main still unaware that apprenticeships are available from the age of sixteen.
    Very frustrating for those trying to promote them. I would also point out that many apprentices continue to study after they qualify at level 3 and move into professional careers gaining high level academic qualifications in there respective sectors.