Today school and college leavers around the country will nervously pick up their A Level results, followed a week later by their counterparts at schools who have recently completed their GCSEs.
Some will achieve what they needed to take their predetermined next steps in life. Many will either fall short of their targets or will have left it to this stage to make a firm decision about their immediate future.
Annually, this is a key time for all of us in work-based learning. I don't think it's over-dramatic to suggest that this year offers the best opportunity to convince attendees at open days and options evenings around the country that Apprenticeships are the route forward for them.
In these tough financial times, one very obvious plus point for would-be Apprentices – highlighted seemingly constantly by media coverage of the costs of being a university student – is the opportunity to further their education and be paid for the privilege. For some, there will be an understandable attraction to receiving regular income while learning, rather than racking up debt by paying tuition fees and other costs while studying for three or four years. The stark possibility of graduates being up to their necks in debt when they enter the jobs market might well begin to outweigh what economists say about greater long-term earning potential for people with degrees.
From the learning provider's point of view, with the Educational Maintenance Allowance now scrapped, the onus is more than ever on you to support your learners. You will already be feeling that added financial burden, so the government's backing for Apprenticeships and the additional funding streams this has created make it a no-brainer that you give Apprenticeships an almighty push in the years to come.
We should never underestimate the numbers of school and college leavers who have not even considered Apprenticeships as a viable option. Many will have it at the top of their minds that their destiny is to tread the well-worn traditional A Levels and university path into employment.
The Education Bill strongly advises head teachers of secondary schools to give consideration to Apprenticeships in any careers programme for their children. However, it is not obligatory and there is little doubt that Apprenticeships have long been pigeon-holed as an option you would only sign up to if you underachieved at school or had a specific trade or craft in mind.
The reality is far more complex, of course. A proportion of Apprenticeships obviously offer further education potential for school leavers who may be late developers or who have struggled academically for any number of reasons. However, there are also increasing numbers of well-qualified learners choosing Apprenticeships as the way to go, spurred on by a rising number of British employers who are willing to look beyond a degree as an acceptable qualification for key roles in their organisations.
We employ Apprentices at Pearson and we're certainly looking to recruit the brightest students – most of the businesses that are your customers would no doubt say the same.
Breaking down the conceptual barriers is not getting easier in practical terms. Government cuts will necessitate redundancies and a reduced service at Connexions, so there are now even fewer reliable sources for 13-19 year olds to turn to for well-informed further education and careers advice.
As the range of advice diminishes, learning providers simply have to step up to the challenge of changing kids' vision of their future in further education. It is in their interests as well as those of the WBL sector for you to provide an incontrovertible argument that on-the-job vocational training is a real and present alternative to the academic direction in which most of them perhaps expected to head.
Until now, I would argue that learners have not been given enough personalised information about Apprenticeships for them to understand whether vocational training is their true calling. You will already be using this week and next as a platform to promote yourself to school and college leavers. Make it your mission to bust the myths and break down their misconception about Apprenticeships. Follow the right learner, right course adage – show every individual that it is them you care about, that you understand their position and that, wherever relevant, you can provide their next educational steps through an Apprenticeship.
Further upstream, it can also be argued that we are relying too heavily on the system to push learners our way. Much of the advice handed out at schools and colleges will come from teachers and careers advisers who entered their own professions through university. So perhaps understandably their guidance could be tainted by their own experiences. As well as educating learners, it is also our job to educate teachers, careers advisors and our own colleagues at learning providers.
We need everyone involved in Apprenticeship delivery to relay a consistent message that underlines the value of Apprenticeships and moves them out of the peripheral vision of progressive teenagers. By moving vocational training to centre stage, alongside degrees, we can illustrate that, while it may not always be the preferred choice, it most certainly isn't an automatic second choice any more.Trevor Luker is managing director of Pearson Work Based Learning
Read other FE News articles by Trevor Luker: