OPINION: Apprenticeships have never been an inferior career choice

Vocational training offered by apprenticeships should be hailed as a way into work for the nation's youth

Vocational training offered by apprenticeships should be hailed as a way into work for the nation's youth - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the most powerful lessons of life is that clutching a raft of impressive educational qualifications guarantees nothing that comes after.

However spectacular exam results are, they might take a young person to the next step but there are multiple steps in a lifelong journey. Then they’re on their own.

Some of the most impressive, successful sharp operators I’ve met left school with no or few qualifications.

Reconnecting with school contemporaries more than 40 years on, too many written off at 15 by teachers who told them they would amount to nothing because they didn’t fit the narrow classroom mould, has been a huge lesson.

Many went on to soar in their careers, now managing directors, entrepreneurs and high-flying inspirational characters often working with other ‘square pegs in round hole’ young people in school to help shape their futures.

What all the above have in common is that they started their working lives in apprenticeships. Many are talented engineers, not the “oily rags” they felt they were condemned as back then, but highly skilled problem solvers, inventing solutions ot complex issues at the highest level.

Sometimes disruptive in the classroom by razor wits, out-smarting teachers, bored by the off-rote book learning education in the 1970s demanded, these, mostly boys, couldn’t wait to escape from school learning and into work learning at 16.

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They craved practical hands-on work and to earn them a living.

Looking back, it’s shameful that they were seen as worthless and second, even third, class citizens in the most formative years of their lives.

Apprenticeships – and the 1980s Youth Training Scheme - were sniffed at as an inferior life choice. This has gone on for years, until their worth is finally being recognised and their stock rising.

No one then could aspire to an apprenticeship. It was something you settled for, a consolation prize for not being great at school, flunking or not taking exams.

The yardstick of teacher and lecturer success is exam results. Bar a special few, no one cares what happens to students after the grades are awarded and the leave school

How foolish that attitude was. Who’s laughing now at these super-successful former apprentices?

Academic success is a simple measure of how good you are at exams and book learning. It says little about who you will be and how far you go when you step into the real world of work with very different measures of success.

In the real world, once a young person steps into an apprenticeship what went before doesn’t count.

Chatting to a managing director the other day, he said: “When I interview for new apprentices, I’m not recruiting an apprentice. I'm looking for someone with potential who will thrive in our company and make the most of the opportunities offered.”

What the solid foundations of an apprenticeship can lead to is never considered within schools.

In the workplace, apprentices have mentors, they learn from the older people beside them, who help shape them as employees, skilled workers and as people, keeping them on the straight and narrow.

They have a structure; a pathway of progression and a clear view of where hard work can take them.

Compare this ‘second class’ option to paying more than £9,000 a year for a “Mickey Mouse” degree that you’ve enrolled on without GCSE maths and English because the university wants your cash.

You have five or six contact hours with lecturers and tutors, mostly online. You have no idea where, if anywhere, this degree course might lead but you’re at ‘uni’ so everything should be fine.

Too many young people are being cheated by institutions now called universities that fall far short of what a university experience and delivery should be.

News this week that some people were accepted on to degree courses without GCSE English and maths was a shock.

To qualify as a hairdresser, you need to pass functional skills in English and maths. To embark on an academic degree without a GCSE pass in either is astounding.

Today’s government response to the Augar report on higher education says that English and maths GCSE must be passed for people to access student loans, effectively barring thousands of school leavers.

I’m all for widening participation and making university courses more accessible, but only if that route is right for the young person.

Rather than supporting young people into higher education, university has lowered standards, invented pointless degrees not worth the paper the certificate is printed on, far less the eye-watering fees and student loans to pay for them.

These low-grade high-cost courses are soaking up young people who would be far suited to high quality training in an apprenticeship that leads to a clear pathway of progression.

But society has been far too snooty to admit it.

Apprenticeships are not second class. They are anything but dead end.

Speak to the managing directors, vice presidents, presidents, chief executives, business owners and leaders who started as apprentices, and are now shaping the next generation leaders starting out as apprentices.

They say it loud and clear – apprenticeships are key to British business and industry.

More schools and colleges need to wake up, work closer to industry and look further than results day and league tables to do right by their students’ futures.