Former House of Commons Education Select Committee specialist Ben Nicholls is head of policy at London’s Newham College. He writes exclusively for FE Week, every month

One of my most enjoyable meetings of the last fortnight was with a Labour MP — a major champion of FE — and his research assistant, currently on placement from university. We met to discuss an internship for young people interested in policy, research and public affairs careers.

I’ve been thinking about such a scheme for some time. There’s a general view that policy is an odd field consisting entirely of hard-nosed wannabe-MPs and geeky ‘wonks’ with umpteen doctoral degrees. The truth, however, is that careers in policy and research (and those pursuing them) can be fascinating and exciting, offering a chance to facilitate change in organisations and the policy-making process. But few people know where to start.

Couple this lack of understanding with the well-rehearsed problems of internships — lack of pay, poor management, menial tasks — and the concept of a new scheme emerged. The Policy Internship Programme (alternative names welcome…) will offer young people the chance to experience policy work from three different angles — Parliament, the front line, and a representative body — during a trio of fortnightly placements. The scheme will promise proper management, follow-up mentoring and guidance, and demanding work. We’ll be advertising the first few placements soon.

So far, so good. But the meeting came during the same week that I was finishing, with colleagues at Newham, our response to the latest document in the Richard Review sequence. As a college, we support much of the proposed reform, although — doubtless like many across the FE sector — we have some concerns, particularly around how new standards are developed, and ensuring that English and maths requirements are met.

The real solution is for apprenticeships to be championed as much as universities”

But the juxtaposition of these two events offered scope for further reflection around careers guidance, and the ways into work on offer to young people.

Too often internships are about who you know, while apprenticeships are still seen by many as a lesser alternative to university, despite recent evidence suggesting that those with higher apprenticeships go on to earn considerably more. Furthermore, we all know what the reason for this is — decades of bias. Consider the headlines when  10 Mossbourne Community Academy students from East London got into Oxbridge. Would the same story have had such high billing if 10 students had won apprenticeships with international companies? I doubt it.

In rejecting the Education Select Committee’s recommendation that face-to-face guidance be guaranteed for all, the government has demonstrated a lack of seriousness in ensuring all young people follow the path best for them. Too many young people continue to see university as the only real path to the best careers, while too many others are put off university for all sorts of reasons when it is the right answer for them. The same is, of course, true for apprenticeships.

New internship schemes alone will not solve the problems of young people finding suitable jobs, though they could offer a great opportunity for a few. The real solution, surely, is for apprenticeships, and other pathways, to be championed as much as universities — and for some successful people who began their careers without university to take the lead. The Richard Review heads in the right direction, but we all know how much more needs to be done.



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