Talking about a ‘middle-class’ grab on apprenticeships could send the wrong message

3 Jul 2021, 6:00

The claim suggests a scarcity of apprenticeships and that only working-class people should do them, writes David Gallagher

Gillian Keegan, apprenticeship and skills minister, recently highlighted her concerns about a middle-class “grab” on apprenticeships.

She outlined government fears about degree apprenticeships growing in popularity and said that “people who would have gone to university anyway… [will] squeeze out people like me, sat in a comprehensive school at 16, with nowhere to go”.

Ms Keegan is absolutely right to want to ensure that degree apprenticeships do not become exclusively for the middle classes.

Degree apprenticeships are a great chance to bridge the gap between education and employment, and it’s pivotal that they are used to open doors for those with fewer opportunities. That’s ‘levelling up’ in action.

However, the language that is currently being used has the potential to send the wrong message.

‘Divisive and counterproductive’

In fact, conversations that pitch learners from differing backgrounds against one another in a bidding war for places are divisive and counterproductive.

By suggesting that apprenticeships and other vocational routes risk being ‘grabbed’ by the middle classes, there is an implicit judgment that vocational qualifications are usually only the reserve of the working classes.

It makes it sound like they are a fall-back option for those who can’t access university.

It makes it sound like they are a fall-back option for those who can’t access university

Through this narrative, university continues to be badged as the ultimate benchmark of success. Learners continue to be marginalised and boxed in by where they have come from, and vocational education routes continue to be stigmatised.

We’ve already seen the reverse take place in higher education, which has always been framed as an aspirational, middle-class pursuit straight out of the New Labour playbook.

To date, there has been a failure to tackle this issue in universities, and we need to ensure that vocational education doesn’t fall prey to similar problems.

‘Two-pronged approach’

As apprenticeships and vocational/technical qualifications are climbing the political agenda, now is the time to positively shape public perception of vocational education. Learning has the potential to be the ‘great leveller’, creating a fairer and more inclusive society through the power of education.

So there needs to be a cultural change and increased capacity on all routes in high demand, so it doesn’t result in anyone losing out. Learners from every walk of life need to feel that opportunities are opening up to them, not being closed off, and the focus should be on expanding availability to those from all backgrounds.

For this to happen, there needs to be a two-pronged approach. Most importantly, capacity needs to be increased where demand is growing so that everyone can pursue their preferred routes – “grabbing” suggests sparsity, which is counteracted by greater supply.

If a broad range of people are recognising the excellent opportunity presented by degree apprenticeships then that’s fantastic; we just need to make sure the sector is ready to meet that demand so no one misses out.

Secondly, work has to be done to dismantle stereotypes around various education routes and who should be accessing them. Central to that strategy is placing equal value on all education routes, so that learners are equipped with the knowledge and the agency to make empowering choices about their futures.

Ultimately, we need to get to a point where learners choose their next steps in education based on their passions, skills and personal ambitions, as opposed to the expectations set by those around them and by society more widely.

Learners should no longer feel hemmed in by where they come from, or what their parents do for a living.

The focus needs to be on what suits them best. Without this holistic approach, a commitment to lifelong learning cannot be put into action in any tangible sense.

I fully appreciate that a meaningful cultural change in our perception of FE and vocational education will take time. But we stand on the verge of a real step change here and we all need to do all we can to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment across all educational routes.

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