Disadvantaged white working-class children must be taught about apprenticeships in primary school, experts have said.
Speaking today in front of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network, said students had to be taught to understand the benefits of apprenticeships from an early age.
He said: “[With access to] apprenticeships, it is how we support students to understand the benefits of apprenticeships and the availability of apprenticeships throughout the schooling process, prior to Year 7. We need to think about future aspirations and career choices that are formed in primary levels, and we don’t really have much scaffold in support for the school system for that.”
In June, the social mobility commission published research that suggested the apprenticeship levy was failing disadvantaged learners, with participation rates dropping by more than a third since its introduction.
The panel in front of the committee today agreed that more needed to be done to offer careers advice on apprenticeships in schools.
Need to know: Apprenticeship levy 'fails the disadvantaged'
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said that there were issues with information, guidance and advice on apprenticeships for disadvantaged white working-class students, who often cannot access information outside of education.
Mr Atherton called for a systematic, funded careers service that allows careers professionals to go into schools and raise awareness.
He said: “Teachers are predominantly there to subject teach, you can’t look to fit careers advice in the margins around the subject teaching. Inevitably, routes into apprenticeships may be more complex due to the range of opportunities, the employment aspect, the placement access.
“You want people in school to really understand that and have the skills and knowledge. You also need the time and curriculum space to really raise that awareness.”
Professor Liz Barnes, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, said disadvantaged students needed to experience vocational courses for themselves – and not just be told about them.
She said: “Students need to experience it, and the old model where children in school could spend days or half a day in college undertaking practical subjects, such as plumbing and woodwork, gave them an opportunity to understand the route through, and they would soon learn about apprenticeships.”
The Baker clause, introduced in 2017, puts an obligation on schools to ensure pupils are told about vocational courses and apprenticeships as part of careers advice.
However, since its introduction, many across the further education sector have called for additional measures to ensure implementation, including withholding an Ofsted outstanding grade from any school that does not provide the information, and giving schools apprenticeship targets to hit.
In today’s committee session, Karen Spencer, principal of Harlow College, said there was still “very patchy access” to schools for FE.
She said: “We find very patchy access in the further education sector to young people, whether they be from a whole set of backgrounds. It's largely dictated by whether the school has a sixth-form and whether it is in the best interest of schools.
“Despite the Baker clause, I think a lot of lip service is being paid to careers information advice. For me, it’s about getting access so you can give proper guidance and information.”
The barriers of disadvantage
When talking about the barriers facing disadvantaged white working-class students to accessing apprenticeships, Ms Spencer said that family income was likely to affect student choice.
She said: “For many of our families who have young people who are considering apprenticeships, if they lose their benefits – something that allows them to assist in feeding their family – they are not going to go for an apprenticeship.”
Ms Spencer said maths and English GCSEs also provide a barrier – as many employers filter applications by those who hold those GCSEs. She added that it’s not just the maths and English skills of the students that provide a barrier but the skills of parents, too.
She said: “We made an assumption right the way throughout our discussion that parents can read and understand the information that we're giving them. I actually don't think a lot of the white under-achieving groups I'm working with, the parents, have the skills to read some of the information that I’m sending them.
“And so we've got a fundamental issue that goes right the way through the system, from early years through to primary. secondary and further education. We need to have a much stronger connecter strategy for maths and English.”
Rae Tooth, chief executive of charity Villiers Park, said geography, too, could be an issue when it comes to access – and that the limited apprenticeship opportunities in rural and coastal communities mean disadvantaged students might need to leave home in order to gain an apprenticeship – something that can be a significant challenge particularly for those with care responsibilities.
When it came to degree apprenticeships, Mr Millward said there was a “fair access issue” with more “well-connected” students taking the opportunities.
He said: “Degree apprenticeships have increased substantially in the offer but have become a very attractive offer. The people who were best informed and best connected are taking up those opportunities and that, interestingly, also includes quite a lot of mature students.
“It is the case that if the best-connected and invested people, who lead to the highest status jobs in public life, take these routes then that will have its own effect. It will encourage more people to take them, more providers will offer them and it will grow.
“I do think there's a fair access issue about degree apprenticeships and we need to make sure they’re diverse.”
He added that much more needed to be done to ensure there is progression from lower levels of apprenticeship up to degree apprenticeships.