In light of National Apprenticeships Week, Dr Lee Elliot Major reflects on this week's inspiring event hosted by the BBC and introduces the Trust's campaign for accessible apprenticeships. 
Lee Elliot Major on March 8, 2018

In light of National Apprenticeships Week, Dr Lee Elliot Major reflects on this week’s inspiring event hosted by the BBC and introduces the Trust’s campaign for accessible apprenticeships. 

Jamala Osman stole the show at the BBC this week. “I can’t believe I feel nervous,” she confided to the corporate executives and education leaders packed into the dimly lit radio theatre at Broadcasting House first thing Monday morning. There was no need for stage fright. The 24 year old, from an Ilford council estate in East London, gripped us all with her story.

Jamala had drifted into a life of hopelessness during her teenage years – an all too common tale in Britain. “I felt that I was going down a very negative path with no purpose and no hope,” she said. “I was hanging around with the wrong crowd, and making bad choices.” Jamala’s mother died when she was 14 – she had to look out for her brother and sister.

Things changed when Jamala came across an apprenticeship programme advertised by Barclays bank. She won a place and thrived. She now has an apprenticeship degree in leadership and management. At age 21 she became one of the bank’s youngest ever branch managers.

It was symbolic that Jamala spoke at an event hosted by the BBC and the Sutton Trust to kick off national apprenticeship week. Here was the BBC, the epicentre of posh university types, launching its own apprenticeships with a social mobility focus. The ‘earn while you learn’ route is finally grabbing attention. Rising fees are casting doubts on lazy assumptions that university is best for everyone.

But there is a delicate balancing act at the heart of the Sutton Trust’s campaign to improve apprenticeships, launched this week too with the #betterapprenticeships hashtag. On the one hand we want them to command equal status to the ‘royal route’ of academic learning. Quality is the key. And our campaign calls for more higher and degree level apprentices – and automatic progression for apprenticeships equivalent to GCSEs and A-levels.

On the other hand we want the best apprenticeships to be accessible to those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It is no coincidence that countries with higher social mobility (Australia, Canada for example) benefit from stronger links between the workplace and education. But cultural assumptions in these societies are also different: vocational training is not a treated as the second best option as it is here.

What is telling about Jamala’s journey is that she had the talent and drive to have quite easily succeeded in a standard university education. That’s what her teachers at school advised her to do. But university was not for her. On Monday we met several equally impressive young apprentices at the BBC, the RAF, and other companies.

For too long academic snobbery has quashed talent in this country. Perhaps the tide is finally turning. As a middle class parent I for one would be delighted if my children chose a high quality apprenticeship rather than a degree. But as we try to boost numbers of apprenticeships overall, the danger is that the very best opportunities become the preserve of the sharp-elbowed. We must ensure that this potential escalator for social mobility doesn’t get closed down before it gathers momentum. As Jamala told us, “your past should not hold you back”.

See all of the Sutton Trust #BetterApprenticeships campaign guest blogs.