Among the five million plus teenagers who will receive their GCSE results this month, far too many disadvantaged young people will not get a decent pass in English and Maths - resulting in a future career path paved with poor outcomes.
Only 40 % of young people on free school meals achieve GCSE maths and English passes at age 16. So the 2013 government legislation raising the participation age to 18 was designed to encourage these young people to stay in education and training and gain these vital qualifications.
This was a welcome change, but has it really led to improvements in long-term outcomes? Department for Education figures show that 77.3 % of students in England do not attain a C grade in English or maths when they re-sit the exam post-16.
These figures don’t really surprise me – after all the exam system is not designed so that everybody passes, yet is leaving hundreds of thousands of students stuck in a cycle of exams. The introduction of new, more rigorous GCSEs and grading changes this year is unlikely to improve this picture.
So I think it’s vital that more disadvantaged young people have decent opportunities to catch up with their peers and progress their careers. Apprenticeships are the ideal route for this.
Improving social mobility
I’m extremely hopeful that the new apprenticeship levy now in force will help to increase the number of young people from the 5% currently recorded as taking up an apprenticeship at age 16. I truly believe that employers have a responsibility towards the young and that less enlightened businesses need information and help to understand the huge potential benefits apprenticeships can offer their organisations.
But even then there’s a big job to do ensuring that our most disadvantaged youngsters can access the apprenticeships that are available as easily as their peers – because many are advertised as requiring A*-C GCSEs in English and maths. Back to square one.
So one option is to increase the number of traineeships available to equip those that have slipped through the education and training net with the skills and experience necessary to move on to a job or an apprenticeship. Also we have to up the numbers of trainees who move on to apprenticeships from the disappointing 22% recorded last year.
Secondly, if apprenticeships are to become real drivers of social mobility then we have to remove the barriers to access for disadvantaged young people – very few of whom currently begin an apprenticeship at age 16 or following Level 3 study – around 4% at each stage.
Then of course it’s vital that awareness of the apprenticeship option is as high as possible – which comes down to improved careers advice in schools. At PET-Xi we are doing our best to help here by launching our Firing Up Young Minds School and College Road Show this autumn, which aims to highlight the local and national opportunities available with some of the UK’s largest companies.
Obviously a place at university is the right decision for many, but it’s vital that young people realise that it’s not the only worthwhile route. My own son turned down a sixth form place in favour of an apprenticeship precisely because he wanted to experience the real world of work, rather than do more theoretical learning in a classroom.
From a social mobility standpoint, the argument for apprenticeships is clear-cut. They offer a debt-free route, enabling young people to ‘earn while they learn’, rather than emerge from university owing the government £45,000. By entering the workplace early apprentices also gain a head start on graduates in building up their experience and business contacts.
Apprentices can cut through all issues of race, class and gender and are truly equalizing – bridging the gap so that the less traditionally academic youngsters or those in difficult circumstances don’t get left behind.
It’s a sad fact of life that some of our young people lead chaotic lives and may not be on track for good exam grades and not thinking about further education and career opportunities.
So it behoves all of us involved in FE to work together to publicise the opportunities and demonstrate that apprenticeships are a route to improved life chances for all.
Fleur Sexton, joint managing director, PET-Xi
Fleur Sexton, a former teacher, is joint managing director of PET-Xi, a national training provider working with thousands of young people across the UK to deliver intensive, immersive, motivational and inspirational interventions that have a positive impact on learner progress.