Half of school leavers don’t go to uni – let’s not forget them

Political debate tends to revolve around school leavers who go onto university, but there has been a lack of focus on the half of young people who don’t.

Today at the TUC conference Ed Miliband was asked about what a Labour government would do for young people who don’t go to university.

During his speech Miliband mentioned apprenticeships, which is a crucial part of improving the career prospects of people who don’t go to university. He said that businesses that want government contracts should ensure that they will “provide apprenticeships” if they are going to win the bid. This is a good step.

Political debate tends to revolve around school leavers who go onto university and there has been a lack of focus on the half of young people who don’t.

Although commentators in the media like to bang on about too many people going to university there is a shortage of discussion about how to increase the number of stable and secure career paths for school leavers who don’t head off to uni.

Apprenticeships are vitally important in this area because, as a 2011 report by IPPR states:

“Apprenticeships play a key role in supporting young people’s transition into work and responsible adulthood in many northern European countries and in some other Anglo-Saxon countries, notably Australia. Rates of youth unemployment in these countries are much lower than in the UK.”

The One Nation Skills Taskforce, set up by Ed Miliband after the Labour Party Conference 2012, has this year released an interim report, which urges that:

“We need to raise the status and quality of vocational learning, not just focus on the academic route through education. And we also need to raise demand for skills, providing support and encouragement to enable employers to better use and develop skills in the workplace. This will require a something – for – something deal, giving employers more control over skills funding and standards, and asking in return that they work to increase the levels of high quality training and apprenticeships in their industries.”

Some of the key problems that the report has identified in the skills system include: the damaging divide between vocational and academic education, low levels of employer involvement in the skills system, a fragmented education system, the need for a new vision for further education and the lack of high quality apprenticeships.

Also, public perspective on non-academic careers is a problem. As Chris Cook writes in the FT:

“Prejudice about the superiority of academic education is a particular problem in the UK. This may be, in part, because technical education has been an area of longstanding weakness. Since the late 19th century, successive UK governments have seen it as a problem.”

An increase in the number of apprenticeships – an increase of 13.9% on last year –  is positive news, but there are a number of drawbacks which make this news less impressive than it seems. In terms of fighting youth unemployment it is important to note that most of this rise is because of an increase in the number of people over 25 taking up apprenticeships.

Lord Adonis writes:

“Underperforming schools – about 40 per cent of school leavers still lack mathematics and English GCSE skills at grade C or higher – are partly to blame. But so too is the shortage of good quality apprenticeships, which need to embrace far more school leavers and act as a magnet to teenagers while at school to work hard and achieve, as in Germany and Switzerland.”

There are also worries about the quality of apprenticeships and how short some apprenticeships seem to be.

Some solutions identified by the Richard report into apprenticeships include employers devising one apprenticeship qualification for each occupation, that literacy and numeracy tests should form part of apprenticeships and there should be a test of competence at the end of the apprenticeship. Lord Adonis also proposes that UCAS should offer an apprenticeship admissions service on top of what it already offers.

These areexcellent proposals, but there needs to be wider discussion and debate about our economic future – one that includes serious consideration of the prospects of half of school leavers.

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