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Monday 11th March 2013
The truth is that, as a society, we have never given the kind of status to craft and trade that we ought to have. No matter that today’s apprenticeships lead, rightly, to far more than the factory floor and that they flourish in other areas, notably the service sectors. For too long white-collar has triumphed over blue-collar, academic over vocational, professional over technical, lawyer over engineer. Too often young people who end up on a ‘vocational’ curriculum have landed there because they have fallen off the parallel but higher status ‘academic’ track; sometimes, they have ended up on a “work related” programme because they have been thrown off the mainstream curriculum for behavioural reasons: “throw the naughty boys a car engine” goes the cry. How, if that is the kind of curricular and behaviour management practice that we condone, will we ever ‘sell’ engineering and science as high status degree options?
After the better part of two decades championing the advantages of (an academic) higher education, we are beginning to question whether this is the only way to “widen participation”. Clearly, high quality, rigorously assessed vocational pathways, such as those offered by the apprenticeship framework, can offer a viable alternative – and an attractive one to young people given the emergence of university fees, student debt and graduate unemployment.
But our snobbery is longstanding. The Education Secretary’s utterances on his (not entirely satisfied) aspirations for the National Curriculum Review and his late, unlamented E-Bac have reinforced a hierarchy of knowledge in which the less conventionally academic is for the less able and in which, for the middle classes, vocational ‘options’ are for other people’s children.
How can we, in National Apprenticeship Week, address this? Four concrete steps might help:
Taken together, these steps might just begin to make professional and vocational pathways, such as those offered through apprenticeships, the chosen progression options for an increasing number of aspirational, middle class students and their parents.
Only when we achieve this can we begin to move towards a better parity between the academic and vocational domains. Lord Adonis is right to argue that as many young people should progress into apprenticeships as into higher education. It is vital, though, that each track attracts learners from across the social range. Widening participation doesn’t just mean getting working class and minority ethnic students into university; it means a broader social mix entering the full range of educational and training pathways that a reinvigorated approach to professional and vocational education can offer.