March 2013


  • Educational Freedom
    Assessment systems in the four UK countries are growing further and further apart, raising questions about the transferability, equality and credibility of qualifications. More
  • Watching Brief
    In its attempts to drive standards in teaching and learning beyond ‘good’, Peter Broughton’s school had to rethink its approach to staff development and lesson observation. He explains how their strategy has succeeded. More
  • Board spectrum
    Governance is an important focus for Ofsted inspections in colleges and is now increasingly so for schools. In a new report, charity CfBT looks at what education can learn from other sectors to help make the governing body more effective. More
  • Right Club
    A policy of keeping students in school in a dedicated Inclusion Room when they misbehave, rather than resorting to exclusions, has had profound results, says Jeremy Rowe. And everyone has signed up to it. More
  • Plan A
    Higher level apprenticeships offer an increasingly attractive alternative for young people wwho reject the traditional university route to a career. Dorothy Lepkowska reports. More
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Higher level apprenticeships offer an increasingly attractive alternative for young people who reject the traditional university route to a career. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

Plan A

Ask Alan Wilson where he was educated and he will say ‘Pirelli’. Having joined as an apprentice he has worked his way up and is now UK chief engineer for the multinational tyre manufacturer.

Along the way he did a degree and an MBA, all supported and paid for by the company, and has worked at their headquarters in Milan, as well as in South America, China and around Europe. Not bad for a boy who left school at 16.

Colleges have been fairly good at promoting apprenticeships and skills-based qualifications but Alan is concerned that many schools do not know enough about them to promote them alongside A levels.

“We attend careers fairs, host work experience visits and our apprentices do go into schools to assist with technical projects,” he says. “We have managers who are mentors for local school students and others who sit on the Career Academy Local Advisory Board, which links local businesses with schools.

“But our time is limited and we desperately want more schools to take the initiative in engaging with us. Usually they will find they are pushing at an open door.”

In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron launched the £25m Higher Apprenticeships Fund that aims to provide “clear, achievable ladders of progression for apprentices to train to the highest levels, and gain the professional qualifi cation and recognition their skills and dedication deserve”. With tuition fees and the prospect of debt now deterring students from going to university, higher apprenticeships are presenting a viable alternative route, both into the workplace and higher education.

Higher apprentices work while they learn and most have a clear route, from craft to technician, professional and management skills.

Mike Smith is managing director of Gen II, a private training provider with about 30 higher apprentices currently enrolled. It trains staff for
200 companies in the North West.

“Apprenticeships at this level are unique because they offer both vocational and academic study, which is absent from universities,” he says. “They are structured, on-the-job training programmes, so young people are getting paid by the employers while they learn. Some have a foundation degree embedded which can lead to a full degree.”

Apprentices have an entirely different attitude, he adds. “Graduates often have an air of arrogance and expect to be leading teams straight away. But apprentices work their way up and learn as they go along.”

Equal to A levels

Sarah Hawley, 21, left university after three months because she was unhappy with her course and applied for an apprenticeship with Gen II. She has been doing electrical design and this year will complete a foundation degree with the option of doing a full degree.

“No one should think this is easy,” she says. “I do a 37.5-hour working week and one full day at college. Although I’m specialising on the electrical side I also have experience of mechanical engineering, so I
feel my education and experience have been very rounded.”

David Way, chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS),
says it is important not to see higher apprenticeships as a lesser route into the workplace or university, but as one that can stand strongly alongside or as the next step beyond A levels.

“Apprenticeships are not a cul-de-sac but a great opportunity to carry on learning as well as being employed,” he says. “University admissions tutors say that they are impressed by the people coming from the apprenticeship route. They show good discipline and a hunger for learning and stand out among candidates.”

Apprenticeships meet all the government rhetoric about rigour, but they also offer skills that the country “cannot afford to neglect,” he adds. “We now see young people finishing apprenticeships at the age of 20 or 21 who are in control of their lives.”

The lack of familiarity with apprenticeships in some schools has arisen because it is not a route most teachers have experienced, he says. He recalls observing a female apprentice from Jaguar Land Rover addressing a group of girls in a Birmingham school.

“When asked at the start what they knew about apprenticeships not a single hand went up. But by the end of the session every single one of those girls wanted to know more. But the opportunities must be available to young people to make those choices.”

Alison Johnston, partner with Dodd and Co accountants in Carlisle, began as a trainee in a scheme similar to a present-day apprenticeship.

"At the time, in the late 1980s, accountancy was considered a graduate job but this company took people without degrees,” she says. “Had I gone to university I would have ended up in the same place I am now, but at a much slower pace.

Alison is now responsible for recruitment, training, apprentices and performance management in her company, as well as having her own clients. She goes into schools to give talks with her students and is a member of the local advisory board that engages businesses and schools.

“We also provide mentoring for students and try to match up what they want with our profession, and offer paid internships,” she adds. “It should be rolled out into all schools though and not just a few, so that
businesses have a bigger pot to pick from and all students benefit.”

Greater options

One of her apprentices, Dani Shortland, 19, was told by two teachers at school to reconsider the apprenticeship route because university would give her a better experience. But she stood her ground.

“I knew what I wanted to do and didn’t want to get into debt,” she says. “I would have wasted my time at university and everything I have learned so far has been useful and what I need to know. Rather than missing out on something, I’ve learned a great deal.”

At Richard Rose Sixth Form College in Carlisle, the curriculum was re-organised to give students greater options, including the apprenticeships route. Kate Holt, the former principal and now an educational consultant and a member of ASCL Council, says pathways were created with subjects grouped by blocks, not only to facilitate timetabling but also to focus minds. Students are able to do a mix of A levels and BTec courses.

“One of the great things it has done is to show young people they have options, but it has also given staff parity of esteem, whether they teach the academic or vocational subjects because both are seen as having equal importance and worth,” she says. “As a result about a third of our students now go on to do apprenticeships and the college has developed very strong links with employers.”

Back at Pirelli, it makes increasing sense for the company to employ apprentices. “Graduates are more mobile and we have a retention rate of about 5 per cent, against 97 per cent for apprentices,” Alan Wilson
says. “Graduates tend to want the bright lights and big city, and will
move around for status and better pay. Some apprentices come to
us with few ambitions, but then realise what they can achieve. It is
wonderful watching these latent aspirations grow and develop.

“We manufacture 10,000 tyres a day here, and have 24 factories globally. There is always a need for scientists, engineers, technicians
and specialist electricians.

“Perhaps we need to get more headteachers here to show them what we do.”

Apprenticeship resource toolkit

The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) is developing a toolkit with resources and information on higher apprenticeships for schools, parents and potential apprentices. Available in early spring, it will include lesson plans, case studies, checklists of di erent types of
apprenticeship and NAS contact details. For more details, see

National Apprenticeship Week

In National Apprenticeship Week (11-15 March) about 800 events will take place across the country, celebrating the achievements of learners and employers and the positive impact apprenticeships have on individuals, businesses and the economy. See the NAS website: