I like apprenticeships. I really like apprentices. This is fortunate: I’m the apprentice engagement oﬃcer at the National Society of Apprentices. I am one of those lucky folk who really enjoy their job. This is the spiel I’ve recounted dozens of times when asked what I do.
I have a confession though. I have a daughter and I worry about her doing an apprenticeship. Yes, I’m one of those people who thinks apprenticeships are probably for other people’s children.
There are a myriad of barriers for would-be apprentices to overcome, but I think that it’s important to recognise that one of those barriers is often people like me. As a parent, as a youth worker and as a voter, I’ve put up with a vocational education system that’s “ok” but not something I’d want my kid to do.
I’m wanting to be convinced that an apprenticeship would be good for my daughter. The apprentices I meet that are on excellent apprenticeships tell me that combining education and work provides them with an experience that is both meaningful and challenging, with high-quality training both on- and off –the-job. There are the usual trials and tribulations of the workplace, but these apprentices have hit the jackpot. They have employers who have understood that off -the-job learning is not a chore to be completed or a hoop to be jumped through but an integral part of educating, creating and shaping their workforce. They do not see it as “time lost” but instead as time invested.
'Work has to pay'
What worries me as a parent though, is that it seems such a lottery. Which begs the question: “What would make me change my mind?
Having reflected long and hard on this question, I have concluded that I would need to know that my daughter’s apprenticeship was good work and a real education. Work where she was stretched and valued. An education that enabled her to progress in the job she’s chosen or go on to further study.
Work has to pay and what I see in parts of the apprenticeship world puts me off:
- If you’re paid the apprentice minimum wage you will have less money to live on than a full-time university student.
- If you are a 16-18-year-old your parents or guardians will not receive child benefit.
- If you are a 16-18-year-old and have a child, you are ineligible for Care2Learn childcare.
- Your entitlement to travel discounts pretty much depends on whether you live in a city or metropolitan area with a devolved mayor, of either political hue.
- Failing to pay even the scandalously low apprentice minimum wage appears to have little or no risk. Year after year the apprentice pay survey tells us of endemic underpayment of tens of thousands of apprentices without a single fine being issued.
'Sticking to the rules'
To borrow a phrase, education means education. Apprenticeships in England require 20 per cent off-the-job learning. The high-quality apprenticeship systems in Europe all have substantial elements of this. It is most disheartening to see this come under attack months into its introduction. In last year’s apprenticeship pay survey we learnt that just a third of women received their 20 per cent off-the-job learning. This was further investigated in Learning and Work Institute’s Sticking to the Rules report, which found that over half of employers did not know an apprenticeship required off-the-job training; four in ten didn’t know that this training needed to be paid.
If we are to have an employer-driven apprenticeship system, employers must know, and stick to, the rules of the road.
The apprenticeship I want my daughter to be able to enjoy would have technical and vocational education that equips her for her career. It would also include the broader educational activities that she would expect if she were learning elsewhere. I’m not simply talking about English and maths, vital as they are, but also opportunities to be involved in social action, supported volunteering, perhaps even learn a foreign language.
More data needed
As a parent I would like to know who both the employer and training provider are at application. I’d also want to see know how many apprentices completed their apprenticeships, how many stayed within the company and how many progressed onto further learning.
In the absence of any systematic and widely promoted source of information about range and quality of apprenticeships on offer, apprentices repeatedly say that after personal recommendation from friends and family, the method they use to assess apprenticeship quality is pay.
If my daughter is reading an advert for an apprenticeship, the single piece of reliable data to compare one apprenticeship with another is pay. Comparing £3.90 and £4.90 is easy to do and the difference easily understandable. It says nothing about apprenticeship quality, though.
The apprentices I work with are pretty savvy. They can spot the illegal ones: no contract, no learning, or paid under the minimum wage. What they don’t have is a simple way of differentiating between merely legal and actually good. The Institute for Apprenticeships has had a year to bed in. It’s time it moved from rubber stamping new standards to telling apprentices what excellence looks like and where they can find it.
As a parent I’d like to see a clear statement on what an excellent apprenticeship looks like and an Institute-backed quality mark to reassure apprentices and parents that their apprenticeship is a great apprenticeship.
It’s not long now before my daughter has to make these decisions. What kind of education does she want, what does she want to do in the future? Helpfully she’s at a school that promotes apprenticeships, giving her an advantage over many other school leavers. Hopefully she’ll have access to enough reliable information to make an informed choice.
All of this has been talked about again and again at home over the kitchen table. Being an independently minded teenager, she’s not been slow at pointing out my parental hypocrisy. At this stage I have no idea what choices she will make. The aspiration of excellent apprenticeships for all isn’t an unattainable dream, but we need systematic change to make it a reality.
Ben Kinross is apprentice engagement oﬃcer at the National Society of Apprentices. This is an edited extract from an essay featured in All change: Where next for apprenticeships? This collection of essays by the Learning and Work Institute will be published on Monday 6 June.