For centuries, apprenticeships, in one form or another, enjoyed the status as the premier training method of young people. Right across the world cultures saw skills and crafts passed from one generation to the next, whether by family members or by other skilled master craftsmen. Being taught skills and short-cuts by an expert while being given the chance to try your hand at the skills themselves were the basis of learning for young people around the world. Yet, somehow we managed to reach a point where the process was considered to be second-best when compared to university. Ask many parents and they will say that they would like their children to go to university, while it has been shown that many parents, pupils, and teachers still believe that apprenticeships are only for those who aren’t ‘good enough’ for university. To understand why this is it is worth taking a quick look back into the (relatively) recent past.
Taking a quick look at schooling in Britain over the centuries and it is easy to see that academic learning was, for many years, something that only the wealthiest members of society could afford. The poorer majority of people would send their children out to work (or at least begin an apprenticeship) from a young age – with the Middle Ages having children starting their apprenticeships from the age of about 7.
This split between schooling and apprenticeships or work continued for years until, gradually, going to school became something that was expected of all children. This relatively recent occurrence didn’t mean that there was a level playing field however, as last century began with a very clear split between those likely to go to university and those who were expected to go and get a job.
With university being seen as a bastion of the wealthy and well-connected, it was little surprise that those who made it through to graduation were cherry-picked by employers. However, as university became more accessible to all numbers swelled towards the end of the 20th century. Many young people were able to proudly claim that they were the first members of their family to ever go to university!
Of course, with all of these people now getting the chance to go to university, graduate figures soared. Unfortunately it soon became clear that there weren’t enough ‘graduate-level’ jobs to go around. That said, graduates were still able to find work in ‘lesser’ positions, and without the burden of tuition fees it didn’t really matter too much.
But then things changed as students were called upon to cover the cost of their university tuition. Suddenly, many of the poorer families who had enjoyed the newfound access to university were forced to reconsider due to the cost. Many families did not have the thousands of pounds required to send their children to university, and while the loan system offered a solution it also added the burden of debt. Suddenly post-graduation earning potential began to really matter – would you earn enough to pay off the massive debts?
Choosing between university and an apprenticeship has become a genuine choice for the first time in years.
With this change has come a shift with more young people looking to apprenticeships as the solution to their career goals. It could be said that the apprenticeship is being resurrected as the go-to destination for young people looking to start their careers. While statistics show that is some way off yet, the government pledge to create 3 million apprentices by 2020 shows that times are changing for apprenticeships. In fact legislation is coming in to encourage apprenticeships too!
Rather than this focus on apprenticeships being something new, perhaps we are just seeing a return to centuries of learning after a little university-based blip?
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