From education to employment

How the benefits system and poor advice are holding back apprenticeships

Anna Clarke, Head of Apprenticeships for MK College

The benefits system is stopping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from reaching their potential, because many of them just can’t afford to start an apprenticeship.

A number of benefits aren’t available to people over the age of eighteen who study for more than sixteen hours a week, even though the limit for those taking traineeships is almost double that at thirty hours.

Recently the House of Commons Education Select Committee heard evidence from a number of experts who described how the system is hitting the poorest the hardest.

Everyone talks about the need for social mobility but the way the system is currently configured guarantees that those most in need of a helping hand are actually the most constrained.

We at Milton Keynes College want precisely these worst off individuals to be given the best chance they can, and it seems perverse that they are the ones with least opportunity to fulfil their dreams.

Surely, one has to start from the principle that nobody should be forced into making decisions about their education and their future careers based on the benefits system. The situation can lead to agonising choices, not just for the young people involved but also for their parents.

Many would-be apprentices come from families with younger siblings who have their own needs, and too often families are having to prioritise one child over another in heartbreaking fashion.

It’s true that people can make changes later in life by returning to education, but can it be morally right to force them into abandoning a career before it’s even begun?

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of some of these early choices. Take the example of someone who wants to become a hairdresser – a trade which can take a qualified person all over the world, can give them the basis for their own business etc.

By taking the apprenticeship route, they will be highly employable on completing their studies because they also have that valuable real world work experience. Full-time study would equip them with all the skills and knowledge but they will be nowhere near as attractive in the job market because of the big, “hands-on-shaped” gap in their CV.

Benefits meanness is not just unfair on the individual but a false economy from a national perspective.

Saving a few pounds on housing benefit for a teenager may mean they will never reach their full potential, never pay the taxes or make the greater contributions to society they would have, so the Treasury (which is after all just a euphemism for our money) undoubtedly loses out in the long run.

Apprenticeships are not always well understood; there’s an outdated perception that they involve making tea and sweeping floors, rather than being the carefully structured programmes of real work and targeted study which they are today.

Colleges can do a lot to change this false perception by providing accurate information at crucial times, but it’s the responsibility of government to help, and changing the benefits system so it doesn’t militate against a young person taking up an apprenticeship would be a good way to signal value.

It’s not just a case of giving the right information to the young people themselves but also to their parents, who very often don’t appreciate how worthwhile an apprenticeship can be.

At Milton Keynes College, our recruitment team are all trained in providing this kind of information, advice and guidance as are every one of our trainers who are out in the field with the apprentices.

As soon as someone comes to us saying they’re interested in an apprenticeship, before we even talk courses or vacancies, we spend time with them, and their parents, finding out what they want to do with their lives, what their goals and ambitions are. We talk to them about different sectors and specialities and make absolutely sure the individual is going in the right direction to achieve their aims.

It’s by no means unusual for us to refer them to other courses, other forms of learning, even to other providers, if that’s the best route for them. Parents in particular are frequently amazed at the range of courses available and especially their rigor and quality.

How many people out there actually realise that there are higher level apprenticeships equivalent to university study? Not many. We in FE are telling them about it but are schools? Is the DfE shouting it from the rooftops?

The perfect example is accountancy where if you take an apprentice and a university student, side-by-side, at the point where they’re both qualified, the former has been being paid, earning as they learn, for four years, not to mention having four years invaluable experience in the workplace.

There is sometimes an element of short-termism in people’s thinking about apprenticeships, whereby the idea of being out and earning a wage is more appealing than undertaking a course of work/study which will lead to higher pay in the long run.

It’s that same short-term thinking by government which penalises the poorest by withholding benefits.

Apprenticeships can provide exceptional opportunities but candidates can only make informed choices if they are given the right information, as well as the economic ability to partake. Frequently, our staff meet young people who want to become apprentices and who are utterly crestfallen when they realise the costs involved.

Very few admit money is the problem, because they feel too embarrassed to admit to it. Perhaps this is why such unfairness is allowed to persist, because nobody wants to say openly that they can’t afford to study. They feel it’s shameful, but surely the shame should be felt elsewhere.   

Anna Clarke, Head of Apprenticeships for MK College

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