In light of National Apprenticeship Week 2019, CEO of the Sutton Trust James Turner sets out four key challenges preventing apprenticeships from delivering on their social mobility promise.

As I enter my second week as CEO of the Trust, it is hard to think of a better way to get to grips with apprenticeships than to immerse myself in National Apprenticeships Week 2019 – or a more important topic to be talking about.

So it was a pleasure to be invited to speak at QA’s Celebration of Apprenticeships event at the House of Commons on Tuesday and, most importantly, to meet a number of incredible young people who have seized the apprenticeship bull by the horns.

Over the last 20 years, the Sutton Trust has done an incredible amount to raise awareness of the social mobility problem we face in the UK.  A problem which means it is much harder for those from poorer backgrounds to get on in life, than it is for their wealthier peers.

A look at the backgrounds of leading figures in our courtrooms, our boardrooms, our newsrooms and indeed Parliament is all too often a stark reminder of this inequality.

But social mobility is wider than the elites.  It is also about increasing opportunity for those at risk of leaving education with no prospect of employment – and everyone else in between. Apprenticeships have something to offer all these young people, which is why we believe we should be optimistic about their potential.

The Sutton Trust’s own evolution is perhaps a good yardstick as to how the landscape is changing.  With our particular interest in bright students from non-privileged backgrounds, we have mostly focused on access to leading universities as the main way to supercharge a young person’s prospects.

But we are increasingly interested in the power of apprenticeships, especially degree-level apprenticeships, as engines of social mobility.  Our research has found that someone with a level 5 apprenticeship earns on average £1.5m across their lifetime; while a graduate from a non-Russell Group university earns just under £1.4m.  Of course, wages aren’t everything, but this is a good indication of the opportunities the best apprenticeships can open up – without incurring high levels of graduate debt. And with their focus on the workplace, apprenticeships may be better at developing essential life skills and employability skills.

So far, so good.  But what is standing in the way of apprenticeships delivering on their social mobility promise?  At the Trust we are particularly concerned by four issues.

Firstly, there are simply not enough quality apprenticeships for young people.  Number targets and the apprenticeship levy have too often encouraged the creation of apprenticeships that are simply a rebadging of lower level training, with companies accrediting the existing skills of their current staff.

These are not the kind of life changing opportunities for young people that we want to see.

Second, there are not enough apprenticeships at higher and degree level. If you look across the globe, the best systems have many more apprenticeship opportunities at higher levels, and it is these that deliver the very best labour market outcomes.

Third, as is often the way when the value of an opportunity increases, young people from poorer homes are less likely to access the best apprenticeships. Research from the OfS found that only 12% of degree apprentices come from the poorest fifth of areas, compared to 27% from the wealthiest.  In others words, better off young people are over twice as likely to access top apprenticeships than those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And finally, there needs to more awareness of apprenticeships routes in careers advice, including as a good choice for more able students. There are promising signs that attitudes are changing for the better.  Polling we released last Friday showed that a quarter of parents would actually recommend their children take a high level apprenticeship over a degree – only slightly lower than those who would do the reverse.

But, teachers are still wary: just 1 in 5 say they would recommend a high performing student opt for an apprenticeship over university.   Giving the best advice to young people is increasingly complex and an area where schools and colleges are crying out for more support.

From where we stand, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic and good reason to celebrate what is already happening. But there is no hiding from the challenges. Challenges around quality and supply; challenges around advice and guidance; and crucially challenges around access.

An apprentice recently said to me, “my apprenticeship is offering me so much – I really do think positively about my future – but it is only by chance I found out about it, and my friends still ask me why, why an apprenticeship and why did I give up a place at university?”

Let’s hope that by National Apprenticeships Week 2020 such misconceptions will be rarer and we will be a step closer to realising the social mobility promise of apprenticeships.  The Sutton Trust is certainly up for the challenge.

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