Pupils need advice on apprenticeships

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Graham Hoyle

Seven MPs of all parties, including two select committee chairmen, spoke against it in the Commons. Two former education secretaries and 13 other peers then lined up to speak against it in the House of Lords.

I am of course talking about the highly contentious clause 35 in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which requires schools to give guidance to pupils on apprenticeships - but only "when it is in the best interests of the pupils to do so".

The Association of Learning Providers and evidently a large group of influential parliamentarians want the clause amended so that all pupils in schools are offered information about apprenticeships.

Over the past few months, the bill has been completing its various stages at Westminster and the Government has resisted amendment to clause 35 every step of the way. What has been particularly exasperating has been hearing a succession of flimsy excuses from ministers on why the clause should remain unchanged.

For example, we were told that some students might not be ready to start an apprenticeship at 16, so there was no point in telling them about the programme. This argument seems rather perverse when we are trying to encourage aspiration and ambition among young people.

Each time an excuse has failed to stand up to examination, another equally poor one has been advanced. It's difficult to escape the conclusion, as suggested by one MP, that the traditional academic lobby is more interested in protecting the number of "bums on seats" in sixth forms than sharing the Government's long-standing ambition that apprenticeship places should grow to 400,000 in England by 2020. The key question for ministers is how more young people are going to choose to take up apprenticeships if they are not being told about them.

As it stands, clause 35 implicitly fails to recognise that, given the right information, many young people with good GCSE and A-level results are increasingly making a considered choice in opting for an apprenticeship instead of going to study at university. ALP members can point to examples of former apprentices in their twenties who are now in middle management positions and earning excellent salaries.

It is deeply patronising that the clause would allow adults effectively to make the choice for young people by denying them information about apprenticeships. Ministers readily acknowledge that many teachers see apprenticeships as second rate, either because of ignorance or prejudice, and yet we may be about to see the statute book allow this most unfortunate bias to continue unchecked.

Under legislation introduced last year, Ofsted now has the power to check on the quality and impartiality of information, advice and guidance (IAG) arrangements in schools. However, can we realistically expect that under the new "short and focused" inspection regime, IAG will really be among the priorities of an inspector on a school visit?

After acknowledging the strength of feeling on the clause, the government minister in the Lords promised to "give it some careful consideration". There is still time for the Government to rectify the matter before the bill becomes law, and let's hope that common sense will prevail over the summer.

We should not tolerate any more superficial arguments against providing young people with the information required to make a considered choice about their post-16 options.

  • Graham Hoyle, Chief executive, Association of Learning Providers.

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