The march of the apprentices

Parents must end this snobbishness about working in Britain’s trades

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The Independent Online

Is it really so long since I was at school? I write this, not because I intend to wallow in nostalgia about a Northern grammar, but because so much has changed.

When I were a lad, ours was not a world of league tables and percentages of pupils getting A-stars. It was an academic school all right, with plenty of boys going on to university. Some did, some didn’t – it was up to them. And, this is the point, no one thought any less of them if they chose not to or couldn’t.

At 16, a portion of pupils would leave, to go into the local shipyard and factories, to take up craft apprentices. They would go on to become electricians, plumbers, welders, and joiners.

Did we, those who remained, look down on them? Not at all. In fact, we were jealous: they were the ones with leather jackets, motorbikes, and girlfriends.

At 18, another lot would not go to university or higher education, but join the bank or building society. Again, we treated them just the same. So did our parents – not once did I hear snootiness expressed against anyone who did not go to university. Which is why yesterday’s report from the thinktank Demos, makes grim reading.

Everyone, from across the political spectrum, is pretty much agreed that something hugely beneficial was lost from our economy and society when apprentice schemes were all but destroyed.

The Thatcher government led the onslaught. Disappointingly, John Major, who left school at 16 with three O-levels and became an insurance clerk, did not stop the dismantling. Then, under Tony Blair, the subtext of his “education, education, education” mantra was university, university, university.

As many children as possible, apparently, had to go to university; we were in danger, apparently, of plummeting down the world qualification rankings so new universities were opened and school-leavers herded towards their doors.

Now, far too many children are going to university when they are not properly equipped to be taking a degree course. As for the courses many of them should not be taught to degree level. And some of the universities ought not to be universities at all.

Meanwhile, we have a national shortage of skilled workers, in manufacturing, construction, retailing and elsewhere, and businesses complains loudly and repeatedly that they are simply not getting the recruits they need.

Suddenly, the push is on to create more apprenticeships. Unfortunately, reports Demos, that headlong charge is against the wishes of parents. An overwhelming majority, 92 per cent, believe apprenticeships to be a good option. And 77 per cent also feel the number of young people doing an apprenticeship should be higher than the current 7 per cent.

But, and it’s a big but, only a third think that an apprenticeship would be right for their son or daughter.

We have to end this snobbishness. Any study shows that many of our most successful business figures, those who populate the higher reaches of the rich lists, did not go to university. In this country, they include the likes of Sir Richard Branson, Sir Philip Green, Lord (Stuart) Rose and Lord Sugar. In the US, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, David Geffen, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford – did not go or did not complete their degree. Other non-graduate names to conjure with: Jamie Oliver, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney.

We’re damaging the economy, too. A traditional route to starting a business and making a fortune was to serve an apprenticeship, and then go it alone – sometimes with an idea gleaned from serving as an apprentice and mastering the craft.

Somehow the notion that it’s university or nothing has to be broken. That has to begin with the schools, with careers advisers, who must present an attractive case why an apprenticeship might be preferable to obtaining a degree.

Schools had spoken to only 19 per cent of parents about apprenticeships, Demos found. Schools have to behave more honestly – and say that university may not be right for that particular child.

They should encourage even their brightest pupils to explore the options, to think about eschewing university to learn a skill. They must pay less attention to eulogising the pupils who get into Oxbridge and other universities. How refreshing it would be to open a school magazine or click on the “destinations of leavers” section on the website and find mention of those who had become apprentices and where they’d gone.

One of the most tell-tale signs of in-built prejudice is the way many schools name and laud those who got into Oxbridge – as if the rest of their year group do not count or did no work.

Parents need educating, too. When my eldest son, Harry, was at school, we received a letter from the headmaster. He’d learnt that Harry had packed in rowing, at which he excelled, in order to take a Saturday job at Sainsbury’s.

In the head’s opinion, stroking the first eight was better for Harry’s “character development” than working in a shop. As a proud father, my initial reaction was to agree with him. Appearing for the school was something to covet, a badge of honour – not just for Harry but for us as well.

But the more we realised that manning a supermarket checkout, meeting and greeting people from all walks of life, taking orders from the manager and supervisor, looking smart, handling money, having to turn up every Saturday for an early start and stay there for hours on end while your mates were getting ready to go out having a good time was also enormously beneficial and character-building.

It says much about us that we attach greater importance to rowing for the school than taking the first, tentative steps into work and business. No wonder, with that prevailing attitude, so few of our children become apprentices and such a tiny number go on to become successful risk-takers and fortune-makers.