Whispers from Westminster

29th January 2016 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes weekly about policy and education

One week in 2013, there was a mysterious 191 per cent spike in theatre ticket sales. It turned out to the launch of the BBC “What Class Are You?” quiz. One question was whether you regularly attended the theatre. Many people didn’t, but wanted to belong to the type of class that did. So they ticked the box and then promptly went and booked tickets to make it true.

So yes, we are a nation of snobs (as well as painfully honest). But is that the only reason why schools aren’t promoting apprenticeships as an option for pupils, and does this really need a law to counteract it, as the Department for Education briefed last weekend?

There’s a real issue here. Only 6 per cent of school leavers name an apprenticeship as their preferred option, and only 22 per cent of teachers rate their knowledge of them as good or better. And schools do have a perverse incentive to recommend A-levels and keep students, and the funding and league table points they bring.

That means we have far fewer young people doing the type of high-quality technical and professional education than we need in the labour market.

But a law is never going to be a sensible solution. Firstly, it’s impractical. There are more than 300 apprenticeship frameworks, and a plethora of providers. How widely will schools have to engage with institutions and courses in order to comply?

Secondly, no school is ever going to be prosecuted.

So thirdly, it won’t change behaviour for the vast majority. Schools know that they ought to give their students a wide range of information. The fact they don’t is due to lack of time, lack of knowledge and strong counter-incentives. None of these will be changed by an unenforceable law.

The government should do three things. Stop parroting the meaningless phrase “parity of esteem” (if I had £1 for every time I heard this, I’d be typing on a gold iPad). Both academic routes and technical routes have merit, but are different.

Focus on delivering a broad, knowledge-rich, academic curriculum for almost every student through to 16 – providing a base everyone can build on. Let’s design a suite of high-quality technical qualifications and institutions from 16 onwards, and make that work. Esteem and take-up follows a system of qualifications that employers show they want. It doesn’t follow government diktat.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron For more on the new law on apprenticeships, read the FE leader on page 47

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