John Yarham, Interim CEO of The Careers & Enterprise Company

The A level results season revealed much about our prevailing national mind-set and attitudes to learning and qualifications.

Amid the outcry and confusion about school leavers’ prospects for admission to university, was an almost deafening silence about the impact of Covid and exam-grading on those seeking to move from education into employment or training. – the course the majority take.

The issue takes us down a well-trodden path of discord between academic qualifications versus vocational learning and pathways.

The pivotal importance of apprenticeships

A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice highlighted the pivotal importance of apprenticeships in developing learning, skills and providing opportunity. It also identified the challenges we face in unleashing their full potential, including the perennial problem about raising the status of apprenticeships in the UK.

Unlike Germany, we don’t have a Mittelstand, which creates a significant demand-pull for apprenticeships and places a premium on technical skills and learning; our services dominated economy leans towards different skills sets and our education system has built-in incentives that have tended to push pupils towards academic choices over vocational.

We also face immediate pandemic related pressures that seem likely, certainly in the short-term, to limit opportunity. Many employers have made business-survival decisions to put apprenticeship intake on hold. In such circumstances, opportunities to create apprenticeship places will be at a premium.

Employers determined to support young people despite many predicting a downturn in apprenticeship places

However, despite the immediate and long-standing challenges, evidence also points to a growing awareness about the importance of apprenticeships, both in providing opportunity to young people and developing the talent the economy needs. In August, the Government seized an opportunity to increase the number of nursing apprenticeships as a response to the surge of interest in health careers.

In a recent poll by Savanta Comres for The Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC), of business leaders amongst Britain’s largest employers, more than three quarters (77%) said employers should be now looking to increase apprenticeships. A similar proportion (76%) said there was now an increased need to support young people entering work.

Teachers now recognise employability skills as more important than exams

Educators are also increasing their recognition of the apprenticeship route. More than four in five schools (83%) without a sixth form now report through the CEC’s Compass platform that their young people have had the full range of information on apprenticeships. This drops slightly to 79 percent in schools with sixth forms – a sign of the lingering incentive towards academic routes. However, it is a vast improvement from 44 percent in 2017.

Teachers now recognise employability skills are more important than academic qualifications in preparing young people for their working lives. In a recent poll of 5,000 teachers by Teacher Tapp, almost three-quarters - 74% - say skills like teamwork and public speaking will equip pupils to secure a good job in these uncertain economic times. In contrast, 62% say the same about good academic qualifications.

9 out of 10 Young People have now had apprenticeships discussed with them

Young people themselves say they are now more aware of apprenticeships. The recent Youth Voice Census found that 86 percent of young people have had apprenticeships discussed with them. Our own Future Skills research, which identifies the impact of careers education on young people’s decision making about their next steps, found that 55 percent say they have thought about whether an apprenticeship is right for them and 58 percent have thought about whether moving straight to work after education is best next step for them.

What is certain, particularly in the current challenging and uncertain environment, is that more support will be necessary to unlock the true potential of apprenticeships. Government’s package of support for Kickstart, training and apprenticeships is timely step in that direction. Allied to such measures, enabling schools and colleges to refocus on equipping their students to make informed and ambitious decisions regarding their futures is more important than ever.

This support will be vital in providing a bridge between the crisis management solutions necessary to combat the immediate effects of the pandemic and a longer-term recovery plan with apprenticeships at the forefront.

John Yarham, interim CEO, The Careers & Enterprise Company

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