James Kirkup: Society does not properly value the skill required for high-level apprenticeships

Posted On: 
1st May 2019

Those who choose not to go to university deserve a better deal, writes James Kirkup from the Social Market Foundation

'The best apprenticeships are a ladder to valuable skills, good careers and wages that can exceed those of peers with university degrees.'
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What is the defining political division of our age? Old/young? Rich/poor? Remain/Leave? I’d suggest none of the above, urging politicians instead to see education as the fulcrum of today’s politics. We are, sadly, often divided between people who go to university, and those who don’t.

The latter group get far too little attention in political conversation, and get a worse deal from both the education system and the wider economy. It may not be coincidental that they are also more likely to have voted to leave the EU.

Brexit is an education story. The higher a person’s level of education, the more likely they were to vote to Remain. Professor Rob Ford of Manchester University has shown that education is more important than age in Brexit voting: younger voters with low education qualifications were as likely to vote Leave as older voters with low education levels.

Sadly, in these days of online rage and shallow simplification, this observation is sometimes misrepresented as suggesting that Remainers are more intelligent or sophisticated than Leavers, something that is clearly untrue.

The Social Market Foundation is proud to work closely with many leading higher education institutions, especially our partners at the ESCR’s centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy: our world-class universities are clearly vital to Britain’s future.

But we also devote a lot of time to seeking a better deal – and more political attention – for the non-university side of the education system, researching answers to the challenges facing further education, apprenticeships and vocational qualifications. 

FE and the 2.2 million adult learners it serves are almost shamefully neglected. Politics and the media are dominated by graduates, so political debate, often unconsciously, rests on the idea the FE is for other people. Anne Milton, the skills minister, rightly says that FE faces “snobbery” from some people in public life.

As the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recently found: “Further Education is the poor relation to Higher Education and its position has been weakened and undermined by reductions to its budgets and a complex funding structure.”

Elsewhere in education, the role of good leadership is understood and appreciated. University leaders are handsomely paid and largely respected; some end up in the Lords. School leadership is now rightly seen as critical: developing a pipeline of well-trained, well-supported heads has been a priority for successive governments.

FE leadership, however, gets less attention – just as FE itself gets less attention from the people who run the country. Forthcoming SMF research will demonstrate how FE leaders can be given the support they need to deliver better education for their learners.

Apprenticeships – and the people who pursue them – have experienced similar political neglect. The best apprenticeships are a ladder to valuable skills, good careers and wages that can exceed those of peers with university degrees. But not all apprenticeships deliver those benefits and an opaque, complex system makes it hard for learners to know which path through the maze to follow. A better funding system would reward good apprenticeships and create incentives for providers to offer more of them.

"Nor does society, as a whole, properly value the skill and effort required to obtain a high-level apprenticeship." 

Nor does society, as a whole, properly value the skill and effort required to obtain a high-level apprenticeship. We suggest learning from countries such as Germany where such skills earn the title of “Master Craftsman”, much as someone with a PhD is honoured as “doctor”.

These are some of the steps that should be taken to give further, vocational and technical education the support it needs; there is much more to be done. Doing better for those sectors would bring economic rewards, but at least as importantly it would show the people who follow such educational paths the attention and respect they deserve.

James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation