The coalition rightly scrapped Labour’s arbitrary target for churning 50 per cent of youngsters through university. As former Labour Minister Margaret Hodge lamented, this led to “Mickey Mouse courses” at mediocre institutions. For all the money that’s gone into expanding university education, 30 per cent of graduates can’t find a job within six months – a figure that has stayed stubborn for a decade.
Yes, we need the greater focus on academic rigour that Michael Gove’s pioneering educational reforms have introduced. However, with the school leaving age rising to 18, there remains a lingering elitist disdain for the vocational route.
The fact is that some children, regardless of background, are neither inspired nor motivated in the classroom. They need wider options. And the absence of choice is particularly stark for those from lower-income households. The vocational route shouldn’t be viewed as some second-class alternative to joining the professions – not least since many of these trades can also serve as a springboard to setting up a profitable business.
The economic case for wider vocational routes for youngsters is equally powerful. The UK’s Commission for Employment and Skills describes skills “potholes” in the UK economy, with one in three vacancies for trades such as electricians, plumbers and chefs hard to fill.
In recent years, because of longer periods spent in education and retirement – and bloated welfare lists – we’ve also seen a shrinking workforce sustaining a growing population.
So, schemes that encourage youngsters into work, with the right skills, should be welcomed.
And yet, a recent survey by the Confederation of British Industry found that half of employers were deterred from hiring youngsters because of their lack of skills. Experience from abroad, including in Australia, Germany and Switzerland, highlights the value of work-based training.
The coalition has sought to plug the vocational gap, creating 230,000 more apprenticeships in 2012-13 compared to the last year under Labour, and setting up University Technical Colleges to give 14-19 year olds a more credible technical and vocational route to success. The Chancellor George Osborne recently went further, pledging to tighten welfare rules to fund three million new apprenticeships.
Still, the British Chamber of Commerce points out the increasing take-up of new apprenticeships by those over 25, lamenting that too many firms feel that hiring younger apprentices remains a higher risk – and requires a longer period of time to make it commercially viable. Two measures would help address this. First, the Conservatives should extend the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers (AGEs), giving firms a £1,500 grant for each apprentice hired under 24. This worthwhile scheme is scheduled to end this year. We should extend AGEs, giving first priority to small and medium-sized businesses.
Second, we need to catch those youngsters who drift away from the classroom earlier. Recent truancy statistics show a 57 per cent rise in truancy amongst all state-educated pupils aged 14 to 16, with a 36 per cent spike in persistent truants. We risk losing too many teenagers to the swelled ranks of NEETs (youngsters not in employment, education or training). What’s the answer?
In 2004, Tony Blair set up Young Apprenticeships (YA) for 14 to 16-year-olds precisely to offer this group a more credible vocational choice. The YA typically provided a two-year programme, combining GCSE English and Maths, optional subjects and the equivalent of two days per week experience in the workplace. YAs were popular: the numbers rose from 1,000 to 9,000 in just three years.
Ofsted praised the scheme for its strong personal development of students, and positive feedback from employers. Research by the Department for Education found YAs could help keep disaffected youngsters in education. Virtually all went into further education, full apprenticeships or a job.
Despite their success, Ed Balls wound down YAs as Education Secretary, swayed by elitist sniffiness – as well as their expense. True, YAs cost around £3,000 more per pupil per year than regular schooling. Yet, at their peak, YAs cost just under £30m more per year than current alternatives, a fraction of the education budget. The £3,000 price tag also needs to be compared with the astronomical cost of dealing with NEETs.
The Conservatives should revive YAs and extend AGEs as part of a broader drive to appeal to the aspirational British underdog – the bright (but not necessarily bookish) self-starters, who are determined to make a success of themselves through hard work.
Dominic Raab is a Conservative MP. He is author of Britain Tomorrow: The Case for Free Enterprise. Liberty and Meritocracy.