Social mobility in the UK is getting worse for a generation of young people.
Young people from low-income homes are a third more likely to drop out of education at 16 are 30 per cent less likely to study A levels that could get them into a top university, than those from higher income homes.
Sadly, they are often unaware of the options available to them once they leave education and so find themselves in low skilled, low paid jobs with little future.
Evidence from other countries shows us that in fact, a high-quality vocational education system can be a powerful driver of social mobility and a way for young people from less advantaged backgrounds to access HE for the first time.
For example, in Germany, Finland, Denmark and Sweden, where levels of social mobility are higher, pupils will be offered technical and vocational pathways which are not labelled “second best” by either employers or society as a whole.
However, in the UK, that level of parity of esteem between vocational and traditional pathways, is still some way to being achieved.
Furthermore, systems such as the apprenticeship levy, which should be working to drive social mobility and help reduce poverty, are in fact hindering progress.
Just recently, I was shocked to read that in areas of severe economic and employment disadvantage, young people are either unable to access higher degree apprenticeships or are having to travel long distances in order to do so.
Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds must have the opportunity to equip themselves with skills for life.
Earn-and-learn opportunities – like apprenticeships – are one of the best ways to do this, offering people the chance to enter work, and be paid whilst training on-the-job, debt-free, often resulting in long term, fulfilling careers with their employer.
Yet many young people are still unaware of such advantages. The education system, via schools and careers advisors, must play its part. Children, as young as primary school age, need to understand the different routes to employment and range of career options, with vocational training taking an equal footing to university.
In order to help achieve social mobility, the earn-and-learn system must, however, offer fair opportunities and work efficiently and effectively. It must offer quality apprenticeships which lead to good careers and life chances. And this is where change is needed.
'Ucas-style portal must be fast-tracked'
Firstly, the apprenticeship levy clearly has the opportunity to boost social mobility and reduce poverty by providing employers with routes to supporting and providing jobs for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Yet reforms to how this works in practice must be made. The government has the opportunity to use the levy to allow employers to support young people with poor school results, to pay travel expenses, or to recruit specifically in areas with high skills shortages or unemployment.
Secondly, a Ucas-style portal for apprentices must be fast-tracked. If we want to encourage young people from all backgrounds to take up apprenticeships, the system must scream of quality and ease.
An accessible method of navigating the apprenticeship and wider vocational system needs to be launched as a priority, with clear information on the different types of apprenticeships available across the country.
'More even spread geographically' needed
Employers can also make a difference. For example, many employer-members of The 5% Club work closely with schools and colleges in deprived areas to encourage work experience (giving access to workplaces and improving employability) and help raise awareness of the value of apprenticeship routes. Lastly, consideration needs to be given to how to get the most out of higher degree apprenticeships in terms of social mobility.
The recent report by Policy Connect and the Higher Education Commission rightly flagged concerns that degree apprenticeships are not being delivered to SMEs – which form the majority of UK businesses, and are not yet available in areas of low employment or economic disadvantage. This causes me great concern.
Higher degree apprenticeships should be available to all, offering a route to higher levels, and I would like to see efforts made to ensure a more even spread geographically and across all size of businesses in order to offer disadvantaged young people, a degree-route. The system must be reviewed in order to make higher degree apprenticeships appealing to SMEs.
Social mobility is about ensuring that everyone can make the best of themselves at all points in their career. Earn-and-learn opportunities like apprenticeships, can help make this happen, but in order to do so, we must all continue to drive a parity of esteem between vocational and traditional education, as well as ensuring the apprenticeship system really is available, and workable, for all.
Lady Cobham is director general of The 5% Club