From education to employment

Apprenticeships or University Destinations: Parity of Esteem on Results Day?

Anna Ambrose

Achieving parity of esteem with academic qualifications and destinations has long been seen as the holy grail of apprenticeships.

Recent data suggests real progress has been made, with apprenticeships no longer seen as something for other people’s children, for underachievers, or related to construction trades only.

For example, polling by YouGov in June this year found that almost half (45%) of the public think that apprenticeships are better than university degrees for preparing young people for the future, while 44% say both are equally good. 46% of parents of school-aged children would prefer their child to pursue an apprenticeship, compared with 33% who chose a university degree. Many large employers, in sectors from tech to accounting, consulting to law now have apprenticeship programmes to rival their traditional graduate recruitment routes.

And so, a few days after post-16 results day, I spent a few hours trawling a sample of school websites – not a scientific exercise, but deliberately covering maintained, academy, selective and independent schools across a range of geographies and catchment demographics – to take a look at their results announcement pieces. To what extent are apprenticeship destinations now mentioned on a par with university places?

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the results were disappointing

It has to be noted that many schools this year have chosen not to single out any pupil’s achievements or destinations. Instead, recognising the exceptional circumstances facing this year’s school leavers taking their first ever set of national exams after more than two years of heavily disrupted learning, they have simply congratulated all pupils for their resilience, efforts and achievements. Given the unequal impact of the pandemic on learning, this is a very fair way to respond.

However, of those who have chosen to highlight individual exam achievements and destinations, the picture is rather dispiriting.

A small number, I’d say around 15%, made no mention whatsoever of any of their students going on to non-university destinations. Perhaps it is genuinely the case that all of their students are moving on to courses in higher education – though that itself raises some questions about the way in which apprenticeships have or haven’t been part of effective and well-rounded careers education (Baker clause anyone?).

The majority did mention apprenticeships. I don’t have a comparison for 5 years ago, but I strongly suspect this is progress! However, it was just that – a mention. Whilst pupils with places at Russell Group universities or places to study medicine and veterinary science were highlighted individually, by name,  the future cohort of apprentices were merely an after-thought: “congratulations to all our students on their university places and apprenticeships.” The impression this gives is that these are schools where the prestige of places at certain universities and on certain courses are valued more highly than others, and far more than apprenticeships.

Finally though, a small proportion of the school websites I checked really did celebrate the apprenticeships secured by their students on an equal footing with university places. When you see it, true parity of esteem takes your breath away. The best example of this I saw came from The Friary School in Lichfield, Staffordshire, who have two news articles on their website presented equally: one showcasing apprenticeship destinations and the other university places. The inclusion of Jamie’s Jaguar Land Rover degree apprenticeship on the website of Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, in a section about former pupils, was another great example.

What should we read into this and why does it matter?

The pupil achievements which schools choose to highlight show either what school leaders themselves value, or what they think parents and other important stakeholders value. With clarity on which of these is the case (and in all likelihood it’s a combination of the two), we’d have a clearer picture of where the work is still needed to shift views of apprenticeships. It’s entirely possible that most groups’ thinking – that of teachers, pupils, parents and employers – has in fact moved on, but that school leaders still don’t trust that their stakeholders value apprenticeships as highly as university places.

And it matters because what we celebrate reinforces what we value, and because visibility makes a difference. If schools don’t celebrate apprenticeships as equal, it risks undermining the confidence of pupils and parents in their value, and pushing pupils towards a university pathway which might not be the right option for them. By implication, it devalues the choices and achievements of students who have chosen an apprenticeship, with implications for personal self-esteem and the relative respect we have for work in different sectors. And if young people simply don’t see those a few years ahead of them choosing apprenticeships – if all the role models are heading to university – they’re simply less likely to do so themselves.

I’m left with one final thought. Has anyone asked schools to celebrate specific apprenticeships alongside university places, or is this simply force of habit, recycling the news story from one year to the next? I met someone at the end of last week, who turned out to be a local head of physics. When I talked about my work at the London Progression Collaboration, she told me with huge enthusiasm about a pupil going off to do an engineering apprenticeship with Aston Martin – “living the dream”. There’s no mention of it alongside her school’s Russel Group university offers. What would happen if we just wrote to all schools to ask them next year?

By Anna Ambrose, Director of the London Progression Collaboration

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