The phrase ‘parity of esteem’ now seems ubiquitous in any discussion relating to the state of further education in this country. The vocational route has for decades struggled to achieve the respect it craves, often being assigned the role of an inferior sibling to the more glamorous academic route.
The sense of inferiority in England runs deep, even among those who on one level can appreciate the value of vocational education. For example, one study in 2015 found that while 9 in 10 parents agreed apprenticeships are a good option for young people, only a third thought it was the best option for their child.
But is this finally beginning to change? A recent survey by Barclays Apprenticeships found that 71% of parents would encourage their child to do an apprenticeship over a higher education degree. This is in sharp contrast to the same survey in 2016, which found that 65% of parents thought university was the best option for their child.
Policymakers will be quick to claim victory for their recent apprenticeship reforms. They will argue that the progress made on moving from apprenticeship ‘frameworks’ to employer-driven ‘standards’ and the promotion of lucrative high-quality apprenticeships at top national employers is starting to be recognised by students and their parents. That 71% of parents now seem ready to recommend apprenticeships to their children does appear to signal that apprenticeship policy is generally moving in the right direction. Contrast this to the mounting concerns surrounding T-Levels, which the Skills Minister herself wouldn’t even recommend to her children.
But before policymakers rush to pat themselves on the back for a job well done, another recent survey – this time from ABM UK’s – was rather less positive. Researchers found that, of parents who know what an apprenticeship is, only 14% think it would be a good option for their child, believing them to be poorly paid or a last resort for those who fail their exams.
What can we take from these seemingly conflicting findings, beyond a reminder that small scale polls are often less reliable than we might want them to be? Perhaps only that there is some evidence support for apprenticeships is growing, but that at best this support is patchy and fragile.
This fragility will no doubt be tested in the coming months and years. As the government slips further behind its target of 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020, the temptation to sacrifice quality for quantity will grow. In addition, the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy looks to have incentivised some rebranding of existing training and low-skill work as apprenticeships, which may well put at risk any reputation it is building for being a high-quality route into technical careers.
Perhaps above all, however, the surveys point to a thirst among young people – and their parents – for an affordable post-18 education system that sets them up for quality jobs, which are well paid, have scope for progression and bring satisfaction and wellbeing. For many, university used to be the only game in town. Yet patience is now surely running thin with a higher education system that delivers young people with spiralling debt and a non-graduate job almost as often as not. As attitudes begin to shift, apprenticeships must stand ready with a high-quality offer across the board. There is clearly more work to do, but if we can get this right then parity of esteem may not be so elusive after all.
You can follow Andy Norman @ANorman801.