Back in July 2017, long before the Prime Minister decided to review the student finance landscape in the UK, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee decided to open an inquiry into the economics of higher education, further education and vocational training.
The Committee highlighted that whilst the number of young people participating in Higher Education has continued to increase, it’s now at almost 49%, there has been a 26% fall in adult skills and education between 2011/12 and 2015/16.
At the same time, there has been substantial growth in the number of apprenticeships, not least because of the Government’s 3million apprenticeship starts target – although since the Apprenticeship Levy introduction last year there has been a collapse in apprenticeship numbers.
The inquiry was established to investigate how post-school education is funded and whether it is focused sufficiently on the skills which the British economy requires.
As part of their inquiry, the Committee wanted to hear first-hand about the experiences of apprentices.
The Committee was especially keen to learn about apprentices’ experience of choosing an apprenticeship. In particular, the careers advice they received and why they chose to do an apprenticeship rather than go to university.
They also wanted to know their views on their apprenticeships to date. Did they have any regrets and what are their plans for the future?
AAT apprentices use their voices
As a result, three AAT apprentices – Arthi Mahinda, Damilare Oladunni and Igne Alisauskaite – joined apprentices from BAE Systems, Rolls Royce and Pret a Manger to give evidence to the Committee earlier this week.
Despite the varied nature of their courses, ranging from accounting to engine propulsion systems, the answers given by this diverse range of apprentices were often similar. For instance, with regard to their almost universal experience of poor careers information, advice and guidance at school and college.
There was also broad, although not universal, agreement that parents had often been less than supportive and that many were at least concerned and at most obstructive when first learning of their children’s desire to undertake an apprenticeship. These views were adequately summed up by AAT apprentice Arthi Mahinda, who now works for law firm Mayer Brown and said; “I’ve wanted to do an apprenticeship since I was 16 but my parents weren’t really convinced and at school the University route was very heavily pushed.”
Lack of effective careers advice
An Ofsted report published in 2013 found that three quarters of schools they visited were not delivering effective careers advice and from the comments made by apprentices this week, little seems to have improved over the past five years.
Similarly, apprentices views around parents echoed AAT research undertaken in 2013 and 2015 which found parents were largely unaware of the possibilities offered by apprenticeships, with only half believing that apprenticeships are able to offer the same opportunities as traditional academic routes to a career and almost a quarter (22%) of parents admitting they would actively discourage or fail to encourage their children to undertake an apprenticeship.
Despite these issues, what shone through was the resilience of these apprentices, despite the lack of guidance or parental support they embarked upon an apprenticeship because they could see the potential benefits. As Arthi confirmed, “I started an apprenticeship anyway, stuck with it, finished my first year and my employer has kept me on. It’s been great.”
Likewise, Igne, a KPMG360° apprentice studying AAT qualifications said; “I decided to take the apprenticeship route because earning a salary, gaining invaluable skills and experience, as well as a widely recognised qualification, is something that outweighed going to university.”
Damilare, another AAT apprentice, placed at recruitment agency Hays as part of a Leadership Through Sport & Business programme, said; “I started doing a degree but quickly realised it wasn’t for me. However, I still wanted to be an accountant and I found out about an apprenticeship opportunity with Leadership Through Sport so started on the scheme and have never looked back.”
This suggests many apprentices are succeeding despite these barriers and despite the system. It is likely that many, many more would succeed if meaningful action was taken to raise awareness of the benefits of apprenticeships and vocational education in general, to tackle misconceptions amongst parents and teachers and to improve poor careers advice and guidance.
There was also much positivity about the likely outcomes of taking an apprenticeship. When asked about her future, Igne said; “I am excited to complete my Level 4 AAT qualification and know I will use the knowledge gained to grow professionally both within KPMG and beyond.”
The benefits to employers
Damilare was also full of confidence about the future. He said; “It’s been great, I have an employer that’s investing in me, I’m not just working in finance, I’m getting experience in all the different business units which will give me a broader understanding of the business. The AAT qualification is helping too because it means I am learning stuff that I can put into use at work on a regular basis.”
The Lords Committee members were clearly impressed with what they heard and we hope that will be accurately reflected in their final report later this year.
Baroness Harding, former Chief Executive of TalkTalk and a current Non-Executive Director at the Bank of England said she was “blown away” by how “confident, thoughtful and insightful” Arthi, Damilare and Igne had been, adding, “I wish all our Committee witnesses were this good!”
AAT apprentices, “extremely impressive”
Lord Turnbull who was Private Secretary to Mrs Thatcher before becoming the Permanent Secretary to various Government departments (including the Treasury) said that the AAT apprentices had been, “extremely impressive” and that he was “genuinely inspired by their contributions.”
Once again those taking AAT apprenticeships have proved their worth. Key problems with the apprenticeship system have been highlighted and senior policymakers now have the first-hand evidence they were seeking to inform their work.
AAT looks forward to the Economic Affairs Committee reflecting this in their report and for this in turn to result in some much-needed changes to apprenticeship policy.
Image from left to right: Arthi Mahinda, Damilare Oladunni and Igne Alisauskaite.
Phil Hall is AAT's Head of Public Affairs and Public Policy.