"Every child should have the option of beginning study for a craft or trade from the age of 14," Michael Gove told the Edge Foundation in 2010 just after coming into power. But an Ofsted report has found that bright students who choose an apprenticeship are being "derided" by their teachers.
Inspectors, who interviewed more than 100 teenage appren-tices for a report on good teaching practice, said that they came across several students whose schools had been hostile to apprenticeships, with social care and hairdressing coming in for particular scorn.
"One very skilled hairdressing apprentice related how, on excitedly telling her headteacher that she had got an apprenticeship with Sassoon, she was allegedly told: `Why on earth do you want to waste your time doing that?'" the report said.
With this attitude, it is unsurprising that apprentices judged the advice and guidance they received in school as unsatisfactory: they reported having little information about the full range of options, other than staying at school or going to a college. The inspectors found that teenagers particularly valued face-to-face advice from an employer and large careers events, but too few were given such opportunities.
Training providers are trying to step into the breach themselves, engaging with young people as early as Years 8 and 9, inviting them to open days and sending out newsletters to maintain their interest. Some providers reported that teenagers are deciding on their post-16 options and making applications at an earlier stage, fuelling the drive to engage with younger pupils.
Schools' attitudes to work-based learning are particularly important because inspectors found that apprentices' chances of success were greater if they had some prior experience of vocational education. About half of the providers surveyed offered work-related learning to under-16s.
But funding for 14-16 apprenticeships had "largely ceased" and fewer schools were taking up other vocational training options, despite inspectors finding that young people "almost universally" valued them. That is no surprise since changes to league tables have reduced the value of vocational qualifications from five GCSEs to just one, vastly reducing schools' incentive to offer work-related options.
For Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, it is the government and not teachers who are disparaging vocational education. "It is ironic that this report highlights the value of high-quality work experience and vocational education at a time when the government has chosen to take an axe to work experience and denigrated vocational education," she said. "Massive social and economic problems will develop if urgent action is not taken to invest in young people and equip them with the skills and opportunities to build a better future for themselves and the country."
Inspectors concluded that students at risk of becoming unemployed and out of education have most to lose from the absence of pre-apprenticeship training, and called for providers to develop programmes to encourage them to do apprenticeships.
But the real key may be in changes to funding for 14- to 16-year-olds. From 2013, the Department for Education is planning to allow FE colleges and sixth-form colleges to be directly funded for "small numbers of pupils" studying full-time, allowing more students who are at risk of dropping out to be offered work-related options. The only catch is that they will also have to meet the government's expectation of an English Baccalaureate of GCSEs in maths, English, science, languages and humanities. As Mr Gove put it: "It's not eitheror but bothand."
Photo: Steve Doherty