Ending the stigma of apprenticeships

The Sutton Trust’s latest report ‘Better Apprenticeships’ highlights the fact that higher apprenticeships may not currently be having the desired impact on social mobility.  According to the Sutton Trust:

“Young people in the best apprenticeships are less likely to be: from ethnic minorities, eligible for free school meals, from a poor neighbourhood, or not speak English as their first language”.

The thrust of their argument is that there is little progression from the lower apprenticeships (levels 2/GCSE and 3/A-Level) to higher or degree apprenticeships, and that the higher apprenticeships are being hoovered up by the well-educated middle-class (I confess I will be nudging my kids in this direction!).

I can’t say that this came as an enormous surprise and I don’t think it’s an entirely bad thing at this stage – as long as this encourages the trend to catch on and apprenticeships are equally accessible to the broader population.

Last year Jess Barwick and I interviewed a number of legal apprenticeship recruiters, in order to produce the ‘Apprenticeship route into law’ booklet for The Law Society.   The aim of the booklet was to draw on the experience of the ‘first movers’ in higher legal apprenticeships and get that incredibly valuable insight out to a wider audience to encourage more employers to take on apprentices.

It was one of the most inspiring projects I worked on at The Law Society.  It was evident that legal apprentices were having a positive, rejuvenating impact on the workplace and bringing in newer fresher ways of thinking.  We interviewed staff and apprentices at the BBC, Browne Jacobson, Eversheds, Kennedys and Withers Worldwide, and everywhere we found dedicated individuals, excited about what apprenticeships could offer individual apprentices and the business as a whole.

However, although each of the employers was committed to social mobility, I was not convinced that they were necessarily tapping into a more diverse group of applicants.  Most of the apprentices we spoke to would have gone to university anyway had they not got an apprenticeship, and by taking the apprenticeship route they had simply entered the workforce earlier.  Indeed many of them will be completing a law degree within their legal apprenticeship anyway.  So not too far from the Sutton Trust’s findings.

Of course this is tricky territory for legal recruiters as obviously the business wants to attract the brightest and the best, and if there isn’t a conveyor belt of level 2 or level 3 apprentices coming through, then they will generally base their recruitment decisions on predicted or actual A-Level results.  The employers we spoke to were utilising and exploring ways to tackle this issue, but it’s not easy – particularly in a profession unfamiliar with the recruitment of teenagers!

My conclusions are:

  1. High quality apprenticeships make great business sense
  2. Although we don’t want all higher apprenticeships taken up by the well-educated middle-class, this interest will help set a trend and start to erode the stigma attached to apprenticeships
  3. The Sutton Trust is right that the Institute for Apprenticeships should have a widening access function to ensure access to higher apprenticeships for those from less advantaged backgrounds. Our research showed that knowledge of apprenticeships in homes and schools was patchy at best, often hostile, and frequently inaccurate!  So as a starting point there is scope for ensuring the opportunities are understood by the broader population.

And finally, my favourite quote from one of the apprentices:

“law firms aren’t as stuffy and old-school as you might think…It’s a really diverse place – you don’t have to be a certain way to fit in”.

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