Are apprenticeships the way to create a truly meritocratic education system?

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RosiPrescott
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Central YMCA
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Educational inequality is on the rise in Britain. The Sutton Trust recently found that the achievement gap in the UK is substantially larger today than it was for children born 40-60 years ago, while a report published last year by Unicef ranked the UK 25th out of 37 countries for inequality when it comes to education. The findings of both these reports present worrying revelations for those working within the training and education sphere.

Not only is it worrying for professionals within the industry, failing within the education system is a major concern for young people themselves as our ‘World of Good’ report uncovered. And, the consequences of failing to reach our full potential in education can be far-reaching. So, before we look at tackling inequality, it’s important we firstly understand the lasting impact it can have.

The lasting impact of educational inequality

This time last year, we published our aforementioned ‘World of Good’ report, which investigated what young people in Britain today are most concerned about. The report found failing within the education system and unemployment to be the top two biggest causes of worry. We then asked the same group of 1,600 16-25 year olds what they believed the biggest barrier to overcoming these issues to be and found ‘being from a low-income household’ to be the most common answer.

With young people increasingly worried about their educational performance, against the backdrop of a widening attainment gap and heightened inequality, it sadly comes as little surprise that an increasing number of students are reporting declining mental health. New research from the Association of Colleges (AoC) released earlier this month found 85% of colleges have reported an increase in the number of students coming forward with mental health issues over the past three years.

The report found failing within the education system and unemployment to be the top two biggest causes of worry.

Not confined to our formative years, failing within the education system, or having negative experiences of it, follows us into adulthood – leaving a lasting impact on how we feel about ourselves. In fact, research has placed a direct link between education and life satisfaction, finding a 30% disparity in the wellbeing scores between adults who had positive and negative experiences of education.

Clearly, the time we spend in the education system has lasting consequences on how we feel about ourselves and our lives, which is why bridging the inequality gap is so important.

Tackling inequality within the UK’s education system

So, what’s the best course of action when it comes to tackling educational inequality here in the UK? Well at Central YMCA, as an organisation founded by an apprentice, we firmly believe good quality apprenticeships are the answer to levelling out the education playing field for those from lower income backgrounds or who struggle with mainstream education.

Once viewed as a secondary option for those who failed to achieve the entry requirements for university, apprenticeships were held in low regard and thought only to lead to laborious, low-paid manual work. However, that’s all changing – the apprenticeship system has been reformed, and is still under reform, as their value to individuals and the economy is realised.

Apprenticeships are the answer to levelling out the education playing field for those from lower income backgrounds

Even the Government has recognised the importance of such programmes – enshrining the term ‘apprenticeships’ in law for protective purposes and pledging that by 2020 it will have created three million apprenticeships.

What are the benefits of apprenticeships?

  1. Earn as you learn
    For students from lower-income backgrounds, a big issue is being unable to afford not to work full-time to support themselves or their families. Add to this, the fact that the average university debt has risen to £40,000 upon graduation, and it’s clear that options are more limited for those from lower-income households. This is where apprenticeships bridge the gap between higher education and full-time work as they offer individuals the opportunity to earn as they learn.
  2. Specialist in nature and industry-driven
    Apprenticeships are, in nature, specialist and driven by the industry – an employer trains an apprentice specifically for the job in hand. The training is focused, structured and relevant, while leading to an industry-recognised qualification. And, through apprenticeships, young people can work towards higher qualifications such as higher national diplomas, foundation degrees or honours degrees without the burden of tuition fees.
  3. You can go practically anywhere with an apprenticeship
    Apprenticeships offer people real choice – one can be done in practically any industry including finance, marketing, business, retail, engineering, healthcare or even horticulture. And, because it gets a young person into the working world earlier than many of their peers, and allows them to build up experience along the way, there’s increased potential for career and salary progression.

Promoting apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are fast becoming a vital part of the UK’s educational ecosystem and are key to creating equality, so what can we, as training and education professionals, do to promote them?

  1. Recognising the value
    It’s really important we recognise the value in apprenticeships – the benefits listed above only scratch the surface but go in some way to showing why apprenticeships are a great thing to behold. Apprenticeships should be promoted as a viable alternative to university and an opportunity for real change – rather than a last resort for those wanting to progress but unable to do so through formal education. In light of the upcoming reforms – including the introduction of the apprenticeship levy - Central YMCA will be holding roadshows up and down the country for further education professionals, training providers and employers. These roadshows will give us the chance to answer any questions about the reforms and to discuss the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for us all once the changes come into effect in April.
  2. Becoming proactive in identifying those suited to apprenticeships
    It’s also vital for education and training professionals to become more proactive in identifying those students likely to be left behind by formal education, or those who would benefit from being involved in such a scheme. Having a robust careers service in place is an effective way to reach out to students and ensure they’re being made fully aware of the range of options available to them.
  3. Giving apprenticeship employers a platform
    Similar to the opportunities afforded to universities, schools and colleges should also consider partnerships with companies and organisations that offer apprenticeships – giving them a platform to speak to students directly about what their scheme entails. Apprenticeships need to be placed on a level footing with universities so that young people truly view them as a credible option and viable alternative to university.

If we want to tackle the widening inequality gap in education, we need to firstly recognise that formal education isn’t for everyone, and be more proactive in showing our support of apprenticeships. At Central YMCA, we’re very much of the opinion that apprenticeships, with the full backing of training and education professionals, have the power to create a truly meritocratic education system here in the UK.

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