IS THE FOCUS ON APPRENTICESHIPS A CASE OF TUNNEL VISION?
CREATED BY: CHRIS DAVIES, CURRICULUM EXPERT
There can be no doubt that the increased attention from all main political parties on apprenticeships is likely to be good for the economy, good for the majority of apprentices, good for further education, and good for young people... or is it?
This current focus is seemingly geared around several premises; many feel other economies such as Germany and Australia have more successful apprenticeship schemes, employers know best what skills are needed for their own industries with up-to-date knowledge, technology and expertise, and it's generally advocated that young people need more real and relevant work experience external to the college environment to develop 'soft' or 'employability skills', rather than hard skills, which presumably there is not the same problem with.
At the latest Annual Apprenticeship Conference, the Shadow Secretary of State for BIS, Chuka Umunna stated 'by 2025 the Labour goal is to have as many young people starting apprenticeships as go to University'.
So, where in this is the college experience? There is a recognised 'University experience' where living in halls with people we have never met, in perhaps a relatively distant location, with an SU bar, clubs and societies giving an experience we are supposed never to forget.
Where do we extoll the great benefit of the college experience? If we park the debate of what a college is and keep to the well established entity, the FE college, it is the first time for most students where they are not regimented by morning assembly, daily form registration, school uniform, a fairly rigid five day week and a remnant underlying status afforded by being known to their teachers through their developing years from being children.
In these large institutions which typically enrol three or four times more students than a secondary school, enrichment opportunities abound. The apprenticeship route may help youngsters to grow up more quickly into the world of work, but with typically only one or two days, or a short block experience, the majority of apprenticess miss out on "the college experience". In contrast their colleagues undertaking substantial college based BTECs, A Levels etc. with embedded work experience could be getting the best of both worlds.
In the 1980's BTECs were relatively well understood and respected by employers (as they still are). The arguement for the Tech Bacc is that it largely centres around more employer involvement, more relevant vocational content, more work experience, more maths and the Extended Project. This seems very similar to a BTEC, with a Free Standing Maths Unit, the Extended Project and more work experience, which indeed is facilitated by the latest Study Programme guidelines. Not forgetting of course that BTECs may lead to or from apprenticeships and be components of apprenticeship frameworks, BTEC programmes are worthy alternatives to the apprenticeship route in their own right.
Many colleges offer internal work experience, one London college for example offers its Level 3 science students a day with a science technician, a strategy replicated elsewhere. This has evolved to a rotation through neighbouring college laboratories to stretch learners out of their comfort zone, embedding what should be regarded as external work experience. Those colleges with their own not-for-profit quasi commercial training businesses, typically hair and beauty salons, restaurants, production lines and garden centres, make use of these facilities for what we might call the internal-plus experience.
Employability qualifications running alongside BTECs and A Levels such as Workskills are offered by several Exam Boards. These require learners to identify problems, work together to solve problems, and delegate and achieve outcomes. They frequently form a framework for worthwhile fundraising projects in the local community and though, without doubt, develop useful personal skills are rarely employment or work focused, so again like internal work experience another relatively comfortable option.
External work experience is a tough option for Colleges of FE, barriers are bountiful, not least those presented by schools though as John Cridland, Director-General of the CBI reminded us last year 'all the schools in the are trying to send out the entire year group for the same two weeks in June'. FE colleges take note!
Ideally each particular group of learners would go out on work experience in the same week. This can work if the placements can be found. If a piecemeal approach is taken, in the first instance any learner missing a week of lectures effectively takes a 3% hit on their annual learning. Whilst of course learners will be given catch-up work it is never quite the same as being there. 3% is often enough to make a difference of a grade boundary.
Employers are intrinsically wary of providing work experience placements for FE learners. Higher Education (HE) learners are generally a preferred option. They pose less of a Health and Safety risk, typically need less supervision and are more likely to provide new perspectives. They are also more likely to add a higher net value for the employer.
Gove went further in his Maclaren speech, identifying the concerns of employers in beaurocracy risks and costs associated with work experience. In response the Health and Safety Executive removed unnecessary Health and Safety Checks, the Home Office removed the need for criminal checks on employers offering under 18's work experience, and the insurance industry have agreed to incorporate young people undertaking work experience into the employers liability insurance.
These are all positive moves which may increase the willingness of employers to respond positively to requests for work experience. However, this year a significant number of construction students were not able to undertake work experience because many construction companies still require work experience students to have a Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) card. An option available at a cost of around £200 to 18+ year-olds.
If work experience were an exam board stipulation in a widening spectrum of qualifications beyond for example CACHE, where placements occur as a qualification component, we can conjecture that FE colleges will be competing to find many hundreds more external placements in an already very crowded market place. It is fortunate that with great strides in computer mediated communication we can substitute some of the benefits of work experience or indeed augment it with schemes linking learners to experienced practitioners in the career they aspire to.
In his address to Maclaren's, Gove stated 'students can't aspire to lives they've never known. So we need business people to visit schools, engage and inspire'.
So are apprenticeships the answer to all our problems or even half of them? Probably not, but they will undoubtly help. What is more important is educating well-grounded and rounded young people with broad soft skills, specific hard skills, up-to-date knowledge and an outstanding work ethic. This can be achieved both through apprenticeships and other vocational routes already in place.