Free schools won’t help female apprentices climb the ‘ladder of opportunity’

Higher education needs funding to help close the gender gap


This week marks the tenth National Apprenticeships Week, which coincides with International Women’s Day today. The theme of Apprenticeships Week is ‘Ladder of Opportunity’.

With female apprentices still facing barriers accessing more senior roles, it seems appropriate to look at why this remains the case and to consider what can be done to even out the playing field.

Apprenticeships have been through many changes over the years. However they are often still associated with traditionally ‘male’ trades including plumbing, construction, and mechanics.

The ‘Modern Apprenticeship’ was launched in 1994, and an increase in investment from 1997 onwards led to a significant growth in the number of apprenticeships as the role was expanded to include careers such as hospitality and hairdressing.

The number of apprenticeships has continued to rise, doubling from 279,700 to 457,200 since 2010. However, concerns remain about the quality of apprenticeships, and in London there has been a much lower uptake rate: the capital is now the second worst performing region in the UK for apprenticeship starts.

Industries may have changed since the last century but attitudes have been slower to alter. Despite many apprenticeships being highly skilled, prejudice surrounding them remains. Generally speaking, pupils who are considered to be capable of going to university are not encouraged down this route.

Following the Education Act in 1944, the eleven-plus exam directed those considered the brightest pupils to grammar schools and all the others to technical schools and secondary-moderns.

The expansion of further education in the 1960s with new universities, polytechnics and colleges opening, combined with the decline of manufacturing industries, meant the number of apprenticeships fell as school leavers took other paths. The rise in social mobility in the 1960s provided welcome opportunities for many, but has left the apprenticeship route seen as a second class option.

Fast forward to today: the desire to increase the creation of degree apprenticeships aims not only to alter the public view of apprenticeships, but also to make them more desirable.

However, it is vital that progress to higher level apprenticeships is accessible to all. In London, the record of progression into Advanced or Higher apprenticeships is poor, with higher grade apprenticeships accounting for just six per cent of apprenticeship starts in London in 2015/16.

Six months ago the London Assembly Economy Committee released the report Apprenticeships: an un-level playing field, which highlighted issues around progression into higher level apprenticeships. Since 2010, the overall participation of women in apprenticeships has increased, and in London women make up the majority of apprenticeship starts, particularly for those aged 25 and over.

However, a gender divide remains. Women’s participation is lower the higher the qualification level of the apprenticeship. In fact, not one woman in London undertook a higher level apprenticeship in construction or engineering in 2015/16.

Furthermore, there is a 21 per cent gender pay gap, with women earning an average of £4.82 an hour compared with £5.85, leaving women around £2,000 worse off per year. Women are also significantly more likely to be out of work at the end of their apprenticeship: 16 per cent compared to the six per cent of their male counterparts.

The London Assembly’s Economy Committee report calls for a better assessment of how apprenticeships in London are working, including London-specific data to assess the progression of levels and diversity to highlight where support should be directed.

But however strong the stated support, the government’s words are hollow without an adequate funding settlement for further education. In the midst of a changing world of work, it is a mistake for the government to be making cuts to our education and further education system.

As research last week by the National Union of Teachers and Child Poverty Action Group showed, it will be the most disadvantaged who are hit the hardest.

The government’s policies and rhetoric surrounding education – and their ideological obsession with increasing selection of children, with no qualms about the actual impact on productivity and well-being – will only set to harm any further progress towards equality for many young people.

This will be particularly true for young women in the context of apprenticeships.

As we celebrate apprenticeships and International Women’s Day this week, let us call on the government to ensure the ‘ladder of opportunity’ is one that all apprentices can climb.

Fiona Twycross AM is Labour’s Economic Spokesperson on the London Assembly and a Londonwide Assembly Member 

See: Daily Mail prepares for International Women’s Day with an attack on abortion providers 

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