Illusions of grandeur: who can raise the status of apprenticeships?

23rd January 2016

Tomorrow’s papers are expected to announce new moves by the government to raise the status of apprenticeships.

However, as Sam Freedman quickly pointed out, politicians are suffering from delusions of grandeur if they think it is within their gift to legislate their way to parity.

Nine out of ten of the MPs who rule us have university degrees, the judges who preside over our courts have degrees, 92% of CEOs have university degrees. In short, the people who hold power in our society have degrees rather than apprenticeships. That is not to say the people who are important to society or the people we should value necessarily have degrees, but power and status are closely linked. And so long as power hinges on a degree, degrees will be seen as ‘high status’.

Yes, perhaps we should develop ‘higher esteem’ for apprenticeships but that requires a shift in social attitudes. Government has limited power on this and blunt intervention is unhelpful; that way leads to the madness of pupils press-ganged into completing science portfolios that magically bestow BTECs worth three GCSEs in order to ‘raise the status’ of vocational qualifications. Or indeed, grand targets of ‘3 million apprenticeships’ which turn out to involve triple counting (as FE Week have reported) or the situation in which one in ten apprentices turned out to work at Morrisons.

Instead what’s needed is a far greater supply of credible apprenticeships that lead to well paid or high status professions; something leading accountancy firms are already helping to ensure. Ultimately, apprenticeships will only ever be as high status as the jobs they lead to. Government smoke and mirrors will never be able to cover up the fact that so few people in positions of power got there via apprenticeships, and it is hard to avoid that seeping into people’s attitudes towards the qualifications.

For the moment, politicians can still count on winning rounds of applause for littering their speeches with references to ‘believing in apprenticeships’. But if talking them up were enough to raise their status, the battle would long have been won. Apprenticeships need to prove themselves and that means helping more top employers develop programmes which are sufficiently well funded and supported to yield career outcomes that speak for themselves. We can only hope that when the government’s full proposals are shared they contain some more nuanced steps that help make that happen.