Can a law abolish snobbery?

Apprentices in a factory Image copyright Thinkstock

If you have a teenager doing well at school you may be starting to encourage them to think about university, but should you instead focus their ambitions on taking up an apprenticeship?

Vocational training has long felt itself to be a Cinderella part of the education system in England, poorly understood and undervalued.

Now the government has said it wants to tackle "outdated snobbery" around technical education and vocational training by forcing schools to provide careers advice that includes these options.

Schools 'must offer apprenticeships', says Nicky Morgan

There's little doubt that schools with sixth forms have an incentive to point good students towards A levels.

But looming over all of this is the pressure on ministers of the promise to create three million apprenticeships by 2020, partly funded by a levy on larger employers.

So what difference will this make to teenagers now?

In the last five years much of the boom in apprenticeships has been driven by adults over the age of 25 wanting to learn new skills.

At the same time, the proportion of people starting an apprenticeship who were under the age of 19 fell markedly.

That matters because the government is now making it clear to struggling Further Education Colleges that apprenticeships are the only game in town.

So there will be a huge push to recruit more teenagers to start apprenticeships, and colleges will have to help make it happen in order to ensure their own financial future.

Hard sell

There will also have to be a push on quality of workplace-based training.

Some big training companies and businesses have had their collar felt by OFSTED inspectors, concerned about the standard of apprenticeships for the under 25s.

They have found young people making coffee or cleaning floors in the retail and care sectors, while learning little in the way of useful new skills.

The best apprenticeships have been those where higher level skills are matched with the needs of industries such as construction or engineering.

The next five years are going to see a huge upheaval in how training is delivered in England, partly aimed at addressing the concerns around quality.

Area reviews are underway looking at education for 16-19 year olds, excluding school sixth forms.

The result will certainly be fewer Further Education Colleges.

But it's another strand of government policy that might benefit most from the plans to get schools to allow a wider range of vocational providers to come in and talk to pupils.

University Technical Colleges offer training for 14-19 year olds in partnership with employers and universities.

Image copyright Thinkstock

Alongside traditional GCSEs, they offer technical training which offer a clear route to apprenticeships.

The first UTC opened in 2011, but already two have closed after struggling to attract enough pupils and concerns about standards.

They remain small, with most teaching fewer than 200 pupils by the beginning of last year.

Bluntly it has been a hard sell, with UTCs struggling to get access to parents and pupils through schools to convince them to try this new model.

Schools have had little reason to open their doors to a competitor model, although the legal guidelines already say they have to give UTCs access to their pupils.

The new law ministers now plan will increase the pressure to do so, although it's not yet clear what it how exactly that will work.

A new Careers and Enterprise Company has been created but has not yet launched it's work with schools.

Un deterred by the initial difficulties with UTCs the government is planning to add more than 50 UTCs to the existing 30.

So back to that ambitious target of creating three million new apprenticeships.

Ministers will have a legal obligation to report on progress, so there is a political imperative to make it happen.

If they want to really tackle the undoubted snobbery that surrounds technical and vocational training, they will also need to make sure it is consistently good enough to make it an attractive option.

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