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Talking apprenticeships with Toby Perkins MP
National Apprenticeship Week 2023 was incredible. From travelling to London for an Association of Apprentices event at Guildhall, to catching up with NCFE’s Chief Executive David Gallagher to discuss reverse mentoring and future opportunities.
I even co-hosted a live show with FE News and conducted my first interview with none other than Toby Perkins MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Skills and Further Education. We discussed how apprenticeships can be improved and what needs to change to make them more attractive.
The Future of Apprenticeships
Our interview was part of a special FE News live show that saw apprentices taking the lead – both in front of and behind the camera. The focus was all about looking forward and how we can improve things for both employers and the apprentices of the future.
I started by asking Toby Perkins about his own vision and whether he was fully behind apprenticeships as a learning pathway.
“I’m 100% behind them and I think they’re the gold standard in terms of skills policy in this country,” he said. “The future of apprenticeships for me has got to be about making sure they’re available to employers, businesses, and small workplaces, as well as those apprenticeship levy funders.
“They’ve got to be available for more young people leaving school. I think they need to be available as a route for straight ‘A’ students, rather than being seen as something that kids who aren’t doing A Levels do.”
Toby made another important point about improving pathways for students who study A Levels but then don’t want to go on to university. This was the exact situation that I’d faced – I even went on a three-day residential taster session at a university, but knew it wasn’t for me.
At my school, we had external visitors every week to talk about our options after A Levels, but the majority spoke about universities.
Cost of living
Inevitably, the conversation touched on cost of living. I asked Toby if more can be done to ensure apprentices, or those considering an apprenticeship, aren’t forced to choose a higher paid job in the short term, rather than a role with higher career prospects.
He said: “You’re absolutely right. Many students are left with this choice between their immediate financial needs and what might provide the greater opportunities for the future. Those employers at the moment where there is a skills and labour shortage (…) they have to offer good money as it’s the only way they’re going to be able to attract staff.
“What I would say to employers is that they have to be competitive, but it’s also a role for government to make sure apprenticeships are seen as attractive and not simply the preserve of those who can afford to be subsidised by their parents.
“I think particularly since the introduction of the degree apprenticeships, we’ve seen a big middle class grab. The number of learners in more deprived communities getting onto degree apprenticeships is very, very low.”
This is something I’m incredibly passionate about. I’ve seen quite a few of my peers talking about jobs for survival versus jobs for progression. Unfortunately, there are more and more young people choosing those jobs for survival because of the crisis we’ve been in since Covid.
Co-hosts John-Joe and Gavin interview Toby Perkins MP
Another area I’ve got very recent experience with is careers advice in schools – there is definitely a bias towards university education, but it’s difficult as a student to directly compare different options.
For example, university can look more attractive as it’s a much clearer process. To get onto an apprenticeship, the process varies depending on the employer. In school, apprenticeships were talked about at a very high level, as I think the teachers themselves are clearly less familiar about what one actually involves (having generally not completed one themselves).
That’s why I was keen to ask Toby about how we can ensure apprenticeships are consistently included as part of careers advice in schools.
“The key point is that careers advice needs to be independent,” he answered. “Too often in the last 12 years has it been seen as an add-on. It’s still very much the schools’ responsibility, and some schools are excellent at it, [but] in many other cases, the provision is patchy and often aimed at those students who aren’t suitable for doing A Levels.
“Careers guidance should be available, not only for all students at the age of 16, but also for all students much earlier than that. We need students to be able to make sense of the options they have for GCSEs, and part of that is understanding (…) what the relevance of those subjects are going to be, to what their next pathways are going to be.”
I think the point on independence is really important here. Careers advice shouldn’t be influenced by things such as school performance measures. Its only purpose should be to provide the very best advice to each individual learner.
National Apprenticeship Week 2023 was full of new experiences for me – no more so than interviewing someone as high profile as Toby Perkins MP. My apprenticeship at NCFE has opened the door to so many opportunities, pushed me out of my comfort zone, and helped me develop within the working environment.
It hasn’t been a straightforward journey to this point. I stayed on at school to complete Sixth Form and left with predicted grades as we went into the first lockdown. I knew I wanted to work and earn my own money, but also wanted to continue with my education, which is why I decided an apprenticeship was the best route for me.
During this time, it was extremely hard to find an apprenticeship as businesses were furloughing workers or letting people go as a result of cost savings. I was successful at some interviews, but not offered a job as organisations realised that they couldn’t employ any more staff.
Fortunately, I found NCFE – but so many others aren’t as lucky or don’t even realise apprenticeships are an option in the first place. Even if they do find something they love, there’s now the risk of them having to drop out because of financial pressures.
Hopefully, my experiences show that apprenticeships are a fantastic pathway into a career. Although mine is nearly at an end, I’ll always be a passionate advocate for them and all they can provide.
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