Sam Barrett is a Conservative activist from Kent. He is due to begin studying Politics at Exeter University this coming September.
I am currently undertaking an internship. It is a placement lasting eight months that started last November after I had left school in June, and finishes this summer before I am due to go off to university in September.
I thus have a vested interest in alternatives to higher education, either temporary or permanent work placements. I believe that they are extremely valuable and, on a personal note, this extra year out has been beneficial to me for two main reasons. First, I have been gaining the best real life work experience that I could ask for in an area of work that I wish to pursue in the future and, second, it has given me time to reflect on the next stage of my life with the option to perhaps alter my path.
Consequently, if anyone decides to gain the more practical skills that are so necessary for working life by exploring the possibilities of a temporary internship/ permanent apprenticeship, the opportunities and funding for their placements should be given much more priority. In addition, a more flexible educational system that does not place university as the key to pursuing a good career would help to augment the significance of apprenticeships. It might even reduce the number of people who emerge from university after spending three or more years studying a subject that may then not be of any use to them, and yet have a ton of debt to show for it.
During recent weeks, the two main parties have, quite rightly, come up with plans to try to deal with the woefully small number of apprenticeships available in the UK. At the start of 2014, there were an estimated 5.2 million businesses in this country, with only 130,000 of them offering paid apprenticeship schemes. The proposals put forward by each party should not specify a Soviet-style quota of new schemes or how many people should be in apprenticeships by a certain date, but rather increase the potential of these being there should anybody wish to apply for them.
Simplicity and possibility should be the focus. The Tory strategy delivers on this account. The Party has announced that it will cut benefits for those under 21 in order to pay for new apprenticeship schemes. Although somewhat vague, the plan is workable, since the Conservatives have shown that they are not shy in delivering the necessary cuts, unlike Labour.
It is also realistic, since it targets those who would most benefit and most likely apply for an apprenticeship – namely, jobless under 21s. (36 per cent of apprenticeship starts last year were aged between 19 and 24, more than double the proportion of 25 to 34 year-olds). With youth unemployment running at over 20 per cent, giving people in this age bracket an incentive to apply for a catered, specified work programme such as an apprenticeship will appropriately ease them in to working life.
The Labour strategy, on the other hand, misses the point. For a start, calling their proposal an “apprenticeship guarantee” makes it sound like a Soviet five-year-plan. But, as we know, proposals made by a political party on the eve of a general election are anything but ‘guaranteed’. The wording of the ‘pledge’ is one thing, but the content is not much better. Labour has said that their ‘apprenticeship guarantee’ will only be open to school leavers who ‘get the grades’ – so inevitably it’s only going to be ‘guaranteed’ for those who gain the best A-levels. GCSEs only will not be sufficient.
Well, from my experience of education, the majority of those who have wanted to apply for a full-time apprenticeship have been those who did not find school particularly enjoyable, and either wanted to leave at the earliest opportunity or perhaps did not do well enough to attend the universities of their choice. Of course there are exceptions – and apprenticeships should be made just as available to high-achieving candidates who have chosen to eschew higher education.
The reality is, however, these types of people are the minority, with only two per cent pursuing higher apprenticeships that require good A-levels and a huge 65 per cent pursuing intermediate level apprenticeships which only require GCSEs.
Therefore, if we are talking about the majority of people, the new 80,000 places Labour wish to introduce will not be available for those who need them most. An employer taking on an apprentice under Labour’s guidelines in relation to the grades they achieved will be faced with candidates possessing differing ones. So they will undoubtedly, (for the most part), then choose those with the best – without the thought of practical life skills that exams do not give you.
Thus, instead of becoming a viable alternative for those who have found themselves at odds with the rigidity of the education system and who have no prospect of entering higher education, these new apprenticeships will favour people with the best A-level results.
One could argue that while there is a shortage of apprenticeships this system of selection based on school grades may be applicable. But with the likelihood of the number of apprenticeships growing, Labour’s current proposals are simply unsustainable and not thought through. In any event, why can’t there be less emphasis on grades and more focus on the assessment of practical skills that will be required to participate in apprenticeships? Perhaps a fairer evaluation of one’s ability lies in the use of work-related tests specific to each placement.
Despite Labour’s miscalculation, I hope that whoever forms a government in May will fully embrace the need to improve the quality and choice of apprenticeship schemes in the UK. For the more important the new government deems them to be, the more likelihood there will be of a shift in the culture that believes university to be the only portal towards a successful career.