Recently, a friend forwarded me a letter he’d received from his children’s school, an independent secondary in London, to mark National Apprenticeships Week. The letter set out to parents everything the school was doing to provide children with information, options and contacts to explore apprenticeships, either in combination with or as an alternative to a university degree.
The school isn’t household-name famous, but it’s still prestigious, exclusive and, yes, expensive: a year’s fees cost something close to the national average full-time salary. My guess would be that the vast majority of the parents who can cover such fees are themselves university graduates: a degree tends to be a minimum requirement for the jobs (mainly in financial services) that allow you to opt for private education in the capital.
And the school for which those degree-holding parents are paying tens of thousands of pounds a year to educate their kids is quite enthusiastically working to help give those kids options that include not going to university. Those parents seem very happy about this too: the friend who shared that letter wasn’t aggrieved but pleased. I’ve heard similar tales from elsewhere in the independent school sector, of parents positively urging their little darlings to consider apprenticeships – and demanding schools help with that.
This isn’t a wholly new story: tales of the (upper) middle-class conquest of apprenticeships have been doing the rounds in education circles for a few years, sometimes prompting a bit of soul-searching. After all, if the sharp-elbowed set capture all the good apprenticeships (the ones at famous engineering and professional services firms, for instance), then what becomes of the striving poor kids who might otherwise have benefited from those schemes?
To which my answer is generally: this is a good problem to have. If higher-grade apprenticeships are so good that that the smart, posh folk want them, that means they’re really working. And the best response is to make sure there are a lot more such places, both plain-vanilla apprenticeships and degree-apprenticeships, which combine higher education with on-the-job training.
That letter from that school – and the school’s impressive efforts to promote apprenticeships – are useful context for an interesting tussle about to break over the government’s education policy, specifically the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill.
It centres on Rob Halfon MP, the Conservative chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, who wants to amend the bill to push state schools to do more to promote apprenticeships and other vocational education. But it goes well beyond a legislative wrangle and to the fundamental question of how far ministers want to go to promote the other side of education, the bit that doesn’t involve going to university for a conventional degree.
This issue, of how to do better for the ‘other 50 per cent’ is about more than education and skills, important though those are. It’s political and cultural. For my money, the disparities between graduates and non-graduates are some of the most significant in our society: creating better understanding and more common ground between those two groups is vitally important.
That means putting more money, esteem and talent into apprenticeships, Further Education and the other bits of post-16 education that aren’t conventional Higher Education. It means celebrating those routes and celebrating our world-class universities.
In theory, the law currently tells schools to at least try to put those two routes on some sort of par. That law is known as the Baker Clause, after Lord Baker, the former education secretary Kenneth Baker, who has become a champion of vocational education.
The clause is an amendment to the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, which says that schools must allow colleges and training providers access to every student in years 8-13 to discuss non-academic routes that are available to them. In other words, a chance to tell them that there are alternatives to HE.
The reality is that this law isn’t widely enacted. In lots of places, schools and careers advisers still treat university as the default option for school-leavers.
So Halfon wants to change the law again to oblige schools to make sure children have at least three contacts – during the school day – with providers of vocational training and technical education. The aim of his amendment, to be put down on Monday, is to tilt the table a little towards those non-HE routes.
Ministers aren’t convinced, apparently worrying that putting this new obligation on schools might distract from their core business of classroom education. Which is a respectable concern, but I hope not one that will prevent them considering the important principle that underpins Halfon’s amendment: that schools can and should do more to promote technical and vocational routes.
Making that happen would, after all, put more flesh on the bones of government efforts to do better for the technical and vocational sector, which ministers have rightly identified as a vital part of developing a more productive economy with higher wages and better jobs for all – rather than degree-holders who gravitate to London and the south-east.
It might also support developing government thinking around universities and their obligations. Ministers are increasingly keen to reduce the number of students who fail to complete their degree courses. Could drop-out rates be reduced if some youngsters who aren’t best-suited to HE follow other routes instead? And could better access to good information and contacts for those other routes in schools help?
It’s a question worthy of debate, not least by people who want to support Britain’s universities – admitting to degree courses students who then drop out because HE wasn’t the right route for them isn’t good for those universities either.
So for many reasons, I hope that Halfon’s amendment gets a fair hearing next week. One of those reasons brings us back to that prestigious London independent school and its laudable work to help its pupils get a good look at their options around apprenticeships. If a proper consideration of technical and vocational options is good enough for some of the most privileged children in the country, shouldn’t it be offered to all children too?