Apprenticeship graduation ceremonies: are they a good idea?

9th July 2016 at 10:00
teacher bumping up predicted grades
Vocational graduation ceremonies may be on the rise, but not everyone’s convinced

Apprenticeship graduation ceremonies are becoming increasingly popular. People who have completed their programme dress up in the flowing robes of academia and collect a certificate from a local dignitary on an enormous stage, while their proud friends and families applaud. Their hard work is being recognised and their achievements celebrated. How could these events be anything but a positive move for the sector?

For many years, I never went to a graduation ceremony, neither as a guest nor as a graduate. After three years at drama school, my swansong was a showcase at a West End theatre before an audience packed with agents.

The rationale for this was clear: it was a vocational course and work was the desired outcome. I didn’t feel like I’d missed out. But without a full stop to the course, which a graduation offers, I remember coming to the slow realisation some weeks later that I had entered real life without noticing.

Hard hat to flat cap

I was recently a guest at my first graduation ceremony – an event organised by the Leicester Apprenticeship Hub, a council-run initiative that works with schools, colleges, training providers and employers from around the city and county.

The first thing that hit me when I arrived at De Montfort Hall, a 2,200-capacity entertainment venue, was that I hadn’t actually anticipated the dressing up bit. A sea of black-cloaked graduates wafted down the corridors, queuing nervously to have their official photograph taken in the traditional academic attire of mortarboard and gown.

I was wrong-footed. I had assumed that an apprenticeship graduation was a presentation of certificates and congratulations on stage, while everyone cheered the apprentices on. I hadn’t planned for role play.

Guests found their seats to the sound of ceremonial organ music in the cavernous auditorium. Then the show officially opened with a beautiful blast of Over the Rainbow sung by a choir of performing arts students from Leicester College. We were all urged to “be upstanding” as the organ was fired up again to accompany a procession of bigwigs – also in Harry Potter wear – doing that slow step-together-step walk down the central aisle to get to the stage.

The graduates’ gowns seemed somewhat anonymous compared with the spectrum of coloured hoods that members of the procession were wearing to denote their academic associations – all at an event that had nothing to do with academia.

A couple of local BBC newsreaders bounded on stage and introduced the first speaker, the assistant mayor, who reminisced about her own university graduation ceremony, nearly 50 years ago. Next up: a senior manager for an insurance company, who discussed how brilliant that insurance company was. Then came a long video from the same insurance company, whose employers individually told us how brilliant it was. The name of that insurance company was repeated so many times that I wondered if there was a drinking game going on that I hadn’t clocked.

It was at this point that I became wildly confused. Why on earth was I getting the hard sell at an event to recognise achievement? What next, timeshares? Now, I don’t have anything to compare this experience with, but my learned friends assure me that their university graduation ceremonies did not involve a commercial break.

Blurred lines

Glancing at the programme, I noticed the same company had a large advert. This is where boundaries blur. Apprenticeships only exist in collaboration with employers. So is this event about celebrating individual achievement or is it about celebrating local and national business?

After a senior HR bloke from a bank did 10 minutes, the real action began and I felt guilty for harbouring doubt. A queue of young people graduating from their traineeships nervously trooped across the stage to collect handshakes and certificates, followed by apprentices from level 2 up to those completing five-year higher-level apprenticeships. They beamed with pride as our clapped-out hands stung. Afterwards, one of the newly qualified apprentices told me that he was the first person in his family to graduate. I asked him if his parents had completed apprenticeships. He said he thought they had. I congratulated him, wondering how the afternoon had made his achievement more official than theirs.

On the one hand, any opportunity to celebrate achievement, and raise aspiration and self-esteem, should be wholeheartedly embraced. On the other, for me this confused notion of what “graduation” means somehow dilutes the proud heritage of what an apprenticeship is. It tells me that to feel validated, we must pretend to be something else.

Whatever your take on the authenticity of apprenticeship graduation ceremonies, the act of exploring new ways to raise the profile and prestige of vocational education is a wonderfully positive move – and that in itself should be celebrated.

Sarah Simons works in FE colleges in the East Midlands


Are apprenticeship graduation ceremonies a good idea?

Arguing for: Tracey Waterfield, apprenticeship hub manager, Leicester City Council

The introduction of higher apprenticeships is a complete game-changer. So one way of getting employers to notice is to put on a graduation ceremony. We have to acknowledge the fact that the academic route has been the established conversation for people wanting to progress.

To put someone in a cap and gown gets that parity of esteem and recognition. It’s recognised by parents as well, which is really important because they are often part of the decision-making process, supporting the young person.

Parents see this and they are blown away. It doesn’t normally happen for people that do vocational study and it should. It really should.

Arguing against: Jayne Stigger, interim FE manager

Are we really saying that if you don’t graduate with a cap and gown, you’re not qualified? That devalues vocational education and academic students, too. When graduations are applied to level 3, 2 and even 1 students, why bother with a degree?

Vocational is not the same as academic – it’s equal but different. So why should apprentices follow that tradition?

Shouldn’t we have our own system of acknowledgement and ceremonial wear? Are we almost ashamed of vocational achievement, so we have to dress it up as something academic to make it acceptable? Pass me my hard hat.

This is an article from the 8 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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