Don’t make your daughter go to university

The Chief Executive of national charity, Career Ready, urges teachers and parents to consider new professional apprenticeships as valid alternatives to higher education.

Yehya Hawila is 18 years old. He’s a student at Paddington Academy in London and along with thousands of other young people across the UK, he’s spent the last few months deciding what he wants to do after finishing school. Having thought of becoming an architect, university seemed the best path; but a paid internship at Crossrail last summer opened his eyes to the new range of options available to him and his generation. In February he successfully applied for an apprenticeship with Costain – he’ll be starting as an Assistant Quantity Surveyor in August and will also be completing a four year funded degree.

This is an increasingly popular choice for the teenagers we work with at Career Ready.  And one which didn’t exist when we were founded in 2002. 

Back then, career success meant going to university.  As a charity dedicated to raising ambitions and abilities, we encouraged our students to aim high, knowing that the majority would be the first in their family to go on to higher education. More than 80 per cent took that route. They were part of the Widening Participation generation, given opportunities to access university on an equal footing with their wealthier peers.

However, their experience was rarely the same as that of previous generations, blessed with grants and no fees. Many of our students lived at home as undergraduates, sharing a bedroom with a sibling rather than partying in the union bar. The majority went to local rather than Russell Group universities. For these students the option of starting a professional career with a salary and a guaranteed job is particularly attractive.

And that is what the new generation of higher level apprenticeships offers.  You can now complete a Higher Apprenticeship to become a Legal Executive Lawyer; or a Degree Apprenticeship in Aerospace Engineering.  You can become a technical analyst in a bank or an accountant in one of the big firms. There is nothing second-best about these qualifications.

Our Career Ready programme is all about giving 16-19 year olds regular contact with working people and workplaces.  As well as paid internships over the summer, they have one-to-one mentoring from an employer volunteer, visit local businesses and learn from working people who deliver masterclasses on key skills in their school or college.

Our employer supporters across the country used to work with us to fulfil CSR objectives and increase social mobility. That is still a strong motivation, but they’re also using our programme as a recruitment pipeline – not just for apprenticeships but for all 18+ school-leaver programmes 

Companies such as Pirelli in Carlisle and Virgin Trains report that retention rates are higher for local staff recruited at 18 than for graduates. Like all industries and sectors they want to recruit bright, ambitious staff with the right skills and attitudes; but they’re increasingly training their own. The introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy, which will be imposed on companies with high wage bills, has only served to strengthen that trend. 

Our ambition is for all our students to achieve maximum career success. That means making them aware of all the good opportunities available after school or college.

One of the biggest barriers preventing other young people from making informed choices is the belief among teachers and parents that university is still the only way. Schools will cite the proportion of children who go to university as one of their measures of success. The implication is that other routes are second best. 

University is of course an excellent path for many, and we certainly don’t discourage our students from going. However, we know that for students like Yeyha, who have the grades and ability to go to university, a professional apprenticeship can give them the same, if not better outcomes - as it did for generations of accountants and engineers now approaching retirement.

We are working with Teach First on their pioneering Employability Leadership programme to make teachers aware of the wealth of post-18 options available. It is encouraging to see the Department for Education asking schools to promote ‘Professional and Technical’ education alongside university. This new phrase for ‘vocational’ education is not a Windscale to Sellafield change; it reflects a genuine upgrade in what is on offer. 

The big battle now is to make more parents and teachers aware of these choices. And to consider them as attractive options not just for other people’s children, but for their own.