My heart sank as I read the latest apprenticeship figures published by the Department of Education (DfE), showing that starts between August to October 2020 were down by a staggering 27.6 per cent year on year.
The pandemic has, of course, played a fundamental role in fewer people starting apprenticeships during this time but we must continue to support those who wish to pursue vocational learning despite these challenging times. If not, we risk limiting the career choices people have available to them.
As a former apprentice, I know at first hand how instrumental an apprenticeship can be in establishing the foundations for future success. I have no doubt that my choice to follow a vocational route to furthering my education has provided me with countless opportunities over the years. That’s why I’ve spent the vast majority of my career championing apprenticeships to encourage others to follow different routes to the workplace than just academia.
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Over the years, I’ve supported many hundreds of apprentices who made the choice to build careers through vocational learning, drawing on my own experience to provide guidance for the generations of apprentices that followed me. I’m so proud of them all – from Toni, a mum of one who lost her confidence returning to the work force but thrived after undertaking an apprenticeship, to Alex, who joined Pearson just a few months ago after being made redundant in her previous apprentice role, yet has taken joining our team remotely in her stride.
Igniting a passion for vocational learning
My journey with vocational learning started at the age of 15 as I found myself looking at the entry requirements for my dream role with the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS). I remember seeing a leaflet in my mother’s post office at a very young age and, by the time I visited my dad on a Navy submarine, my mind was well and truly set that it was the career for me.
I gained my basic secretarial and shorthand qualifications at school but then hit a stumbling block. How would I gain the occupational experience I needed so I could successfully apply for secretarial roles at the WRNS? That’s when I applied to become a secretarial apprentice with the UK Atomic Energy Authority in Dounreay, Scotland.
While studying, my apprenticeship allowed me to gain invaluable on-the-job experience, which meant I was able to achieve the entry criteria for my dream role in the WRNS with the bonus of completing my training debt free while earning a salary.
My own positive apprenticeship experience ignited a passion for vocational learning that has defined my entire career. Fast-forward a few years and I became a lecturer at a college and, by 1999, I had become a government inspector for further education and training, specialising in work-based learning.
For the next 17 years, I worked for the Training Standards Council, the Adult Learning Inspectorate and then Ofsted, while also advising employers, further education colleges, local authorities and other training organisations on how to deliver high-quality learning to apprentices and other students, including adults and the most disadvantaged.
The huge value of apprenticeships
Now, in my role at Pearson and as an ambassador for the National Apprenticeship Ambassador Network, I work closely with many external third-sector organisations to help them to encourage those from less privileged backgrounds to seek and gain employment through an apprenticeship.
One such partnership is an upcoming session we’re developing in collaboration with the Children’s Society for National Apprenticeship Week to provide care leavers with the knowledge they need to feel that they can apply to apprenticeships with confidence. Pearson wants to encourage greater diversity in the workplace and we truly believe that grassroots initiatives such as this are fundamental to achieving that.
The pandemic has changed the landscape for apprentices. While it is more important than ever to help people to upskill and retrain in a challenging job market, lockdown restrictions have made apprenticeships harder to deliver as evidenced by the recent DfE figures.
The country continues to face immense challenges but businesses must not lose sight of the huge value of apprenticeships in equipping our young people with the skills they need to flourish in their careers. My own experience of vocational learning has opened many doors and I will continue to advocate on behalf of apprentices so that future generations have the same opportunities open to them that I was fortunate enough to have.
Anne Ashworth is the head of employee apprenticeships at Pearson