`Seismic shift' needed to ensure skills future

Huge disparity in numbers taking vocational and academic routes

Darren Evans

Urgent action is needed to bridge the "massive gulf" between the number of learners opting for vocational and academic routes, according to a leading skills body.

Analysis by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) reveals that 15 times more students are doing degrees than are taking higher-level vocational routes into work, including Higher Apprenticeships, NVQs and Higher National Diplomas. Figures from 2011-12 show that 101,700 students were enrolled on higher-level vocational courses compared with 1,537,300 on academic courses.

Michael Davis, chief executive of the UKCES, argued that it was time to stop viewing vocational routes as the "ugly duckling". "Although much is being done to improve the quality and promote the benefits of both apprenticeships and vocational qualifications, we need to push this further," he said. "We're starting to make inroads into the way we approach vocational learning but have yet to achieve the seismic shift that's needed to unlock its hidden value to young people and employers."

Last month, the government launched a new advertising campaign to promote work-based learning, calling on young people to "Get in, go far" by choosing an apprenticeship.

But Mr Davis said the "disappointing" figures highlighted the "massive gulf" between vocational and academic routes and showed there was still a long way to go. "It is vital that we don't take our foot off the pedal," he added. "If we want to give young people the best education, part of that is ensuring they know what options are available.

"Schools and colleges need to give the same prominence in their careers advice and guidance programmes to apprenticeship and other vocational opportunities as they do to university options."

Writing on the TES website today, Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), argues that raising awareness of apprenticeships is helpful but will not be enough. "Without the follow-up from training providers talking directly to employers and the encouragement of learners to explain the benefits of training, the advertising will have little impact," he says.

Mr Segal warns that although the message is positive, there is a "real risk" that announcements about new apprenticeship standards will give the impression that the existing apprenticeship frameworks are not supported by employers, when the opposite is true. "The apprenticeship changes must be promoted as building on the success, not fixing a problem," he adds.

Although the government wants as many businesses as possible to take on apprentices, it estimates that only 9 per cent of employers are involved in the programme at present.

However, research for National Apprenticeship Week in March found that almost half (44 per cent) of businesses planned to take on apprentices in the next five years, compared with 36 per cent of respondents at the same time last year.

But the AELP believes that uptake by employers is "much higher" than the government figures suggest because some who do not currently have an apprentice may have employed one in the past year or two. In his article, Mr Segal says that the number of apprentices can be increased but that it is not realistic to expect all businesses to take one on.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that the number of higher apprenticeships had grown rapidly, from 5,700 in 2011-12 to 13,000 in 2012-13. It has also committed pound;40 million to support an additional 20,000 starts by the end of this academic year.

"A university degree and apprenticeship is a different but equally valid choice and we want every young person to be able to choose the educational route that is right for them," a spokeswoman said. "There have been over 1.8 million apprenticeship starts since May 2010 and we are on course to reach our 2 million target within this Parliament.

"The government has recently joined forces with top employers to launch a new apprenticeship campaign that features some of the many success stories which show exactly how far an apprenticeship can take you."

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Darren Evans

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