Party conferences have become quite a bore recently. I remember they were televised live when I was younger. In fact, it was the only time there was daytime television apart from Watch with Mother.
It’s not surprising that sometimes things slip through unnoticed. This year, for example, the Conservatives proposed the development of a £20m bursary award scheme to help 5,000 apprentices enter higher education.
Currently, only about 250 apprentices apply to university, whereas in France and Germany, apprenticeship is seen as a major route into higher education.
The CIOB has long advocated that vocational education needs to be seen in the context of a ladder of opportunity, leading right to the very top of the industry or profession. Some construction firms do run apprenticeship schemes which combine work with part-time higher education. I know from looking at our records that people who come through this route enter full professional membership of the CIOB three to five years sooner than regular graduates.
In general, many of today’s schemes are merely dumbed-down versions of what many older people would view as an apprenticeship. As a result they have downgraded the perception of vocational education and its value.
A recent research document from the Higher Education Policy Institute – The Higher Education Experience and Outcomes of Students with Vocational Level Three Qualifications – raises serious questions about whether vocational qualifications are as good a preparation for higher education as their academic equivalents. Certainly, students’ achievement levels once they reach higher education are lower.
There are two possible reasons for this. First, the University and Colleges Admission Services’ method of calculating the points given to vocational qualifications and A-levels could be flawed, if students with equivalent points are not achieving similar results. Or it may be that vocational qualifications are just not good enough as a preparation for higher education. This raises questions for the newly-launched Construction and Built Environment diploma.
Vocational education is no substitute for having good skills in literacy and numeracy, the skills which were traditionally understood as being required to start an apprenticeship.
If the Conservatives want more apprentices in higher education, they need to address the deficiencies within vocational education. In the past many apprentices became the captains and leaders of the industry. But how many will now end up leading our biggest construction companies?
Chris Blythe is chief executive of the CIOB