Honoured to be invited to participate in the Parliamentary Education Committee Oral Evidence Session on Post-16 Education

Our MD Matthew McCarrick contributed today to an Education Committee Oral Evidence Session on Post-16 Education held at Westminster. The aim of the meeting was to gather opinions from business leaders, particularly from SME’s across the country and a diverse variety of sectors, on what is working and what could be improved with regards to all the current pathways of Post 16 education – namely, A-levels, apprenticeships, the new T-levels (no, we hadn’t heard of them either) and other routes whether available or hypothetical to prepare young people to be able to actively participate in industry.

Matthew was well placed within the panel given McCarrick Construction’s history of apprentice employment and repeated success at the National Apprentice Awards. He also has a wider perspective gained from discussions with other members of regional committee Construction Alliance North East (CAN) where he is a board member.

Other panellists included Peter Cadwalladr who started out as a lawyer and now employs school leavers at his hotel, Andy Webb, MD of a specialist aeronautical supplier, Lisa Silcock, Group HR Manager at Naylor Industries PLC, Steven Kearney, MD of SK Architects, Chris Pont, CEO of IT specialists IJYI Ltd and Jane Gratton, Head of People Policy at the British Chamber of Commerce. It was a fruitful and wide-ranging discussion, led by Robert Halfen MP, which highlighted that some issues apply to a wide range of industries.  

In brief, the main points made included the following:

The curriculum – does it prepare students for industry? We said – school leavers need to have had more work experience

We feel, and this was agreed across the panel, that 16-year-olds are sorely lacking in work experience – they have no idea what the world of work feels like, the basics that are expected of them. Peter Cadwalladr made the point that he has school leavers who don’t know how to format an email or are scared of answering the phone.

The other problem with having no work experience is that having never tried the careers they’re expected to commit to, they sometimes find themselves signed up to pathways that they discover on Day 1 are not what they want in life. We have our apprentices in for work experience before they sign up and this has helped us many times in the past when potential apprentices interview well and then during their work experience realise that on-site life is not for them. Which is great- they re-evaluate their options before September, and we are able to offer the place to someone else rather than it be wasted.

Work experience has dropped off the radar due to the pandemic but also the amount of paperwork required, the effort that would have to be made by the school to ring round local businesses and arrange it, the fact that schools and businesses are all stretched and have no staff to co-ordinate this. Can there not be an organisation attached to the LEA that is responsible for co-ordinating between local employers and schools/colleges who would matchmake this and take the time-consuming red tape out of it for employers? A National Work Experience Week was one idea we thought up here – the whole culture of British business to incorporate and have patience during the month of (say) July as the work experience kids are in.

T-levels – are they working? We said – we’ve never heard of them

Interestingly, It seems none of the employers on the panel had heard of them and according to Jane Gratton at the British Chamber of Commerce, only 12% of employers have any knowledge of them at all.

T-levels – or “Technical Levels”, are a new qualification equivalent in weight to A-levels but are meant to balance the necessary academic learning work experience and are suited to technical/skills based courses. 350 hours of work experience are required per student. Sounds great in practice but speaking to colleagues who deal with apprentices, their fear is that removing the less onerous sounding Level 2 and Level 3 NVQ’s could put off 16 year olds who don’t see themselves as academic, so we could lose out on some potentially great tradespeople who just want to start simply on the lowest rung they can at the age of 16 and go from there.

Certainly more awareness is needed in industry of these new qualifications.

Are schools adequately connected with businesses? We said – not at all, for many reasons

There is a huge disconnect between schools and employers that we really need to get on top of – school leavers are not ready for the world of work, and yet we have a skills shortage in this country and in the construction industry in particular which is not being backfilled quickly enough.

Schools are seen to be ‘chasing league tables’ and not promoting the many benefits of apprenticeships to their pupils as they want them all to go on to A-levels – in fact some colleges we deal with feel that schools behave as if they’re competing with colleges for ‘business’. This needs addressing – we need to break the stigma of apprenticeships and promote them as the practical and successful route into careers that they are. Construction apprenticeships in particular are not for those who just can’t be bothered – they really do turn young people into highly skilled tradespeople who are often able to create very profitable and secure careers for themselves.

In construction, the CITB used to fulfil schools outreach roles but since its funding was cut due to the pandemic it has all but ceased this kind of activity. We as an industry need to be mindful that we need to restart this effort bigger and better than ever before if we’re to change the image of construction in order to attract more young people.

What involvement in schools could look like

Andy Webb of Skysmart MRO made an interesting point that the seeds of curiosity and interest in a particular field are often sown very early in a child’s life. His passion for aeronauticals came from early experiences visiting local airfields as a child. Alongside YES, a charity he co-founded, he works with local schools, Beavers, Cubs, Brownies etc to provide Aviation Days for groups of children – some of whom could develop a life-long passion for aviation from that one formative experience.

Construction site visits are definitely something the construction industry could do more of, but we have very stringent Health and Safety legislation which would mean it would need organising at scale in order to make it worthwhile preparing a site. We imagine a site could be made ready to have a day full of tours from different schools and year-groups before work continues at full pace the following day. This would really help to plant the idea of what a career in construction could look like in primary school-aged children.

What barriers are there to businesses taking on apprentices? We said – many

– Looking at the number of new ‘training colleges’ now offering apprenticeships it’s easy to see why we stick to two or three local, tried and tested educational institutions but for a company looking to employ an apprentice for the first time it’s going to be a confusing picture. With the lack of clear careers guidance into apprenticeships we can only think how hard this is for a 16-year-old to navigate. We feel there are suddenly too many training institutions advertising for students whose credentials are questionable.

– Completion/drop out rates – businesses suffer from badly prepared apprentices dropping out and leaving them having expended considerable effort and staff time with no return. Work experience would partially solve this problem.

– Apprentice courses, particularly in niche industries, are sometimes set by the big businesses who stipulate course requirements according to their needs but aren’t applicable to the SME’s within the same industry. A more modular and flexible approach is therefore needed in order to enable different companies to take part.

– The need for businesses to constantly update courses and schemes – this can be handled well by an industry like construction which has industry-wide standards but is less easy in a constantly changing and hard-to-teach industry like IT.

Do we need to completely overhaul this in favour of a new Baccalaureate system? We said no – in construction, traditional apprenticeships work really well.

If anything, according to our Contracts Director Tony Pearce who manages our apprentices, we could do with rolling back a few recent changes to go back to a simpler system. Not long ago, apprentices would do 3 months full time in college so that when they arrived on site they recognised what they were looking at. Now, they arrive on site absolutely new to the situation and this can be intimidating and an inefficient way to teach for our apprentice mentors. A basic understanding of the theory of construction would be beneficial.

A further point on this is that the fast track FTL courses offered are not working and should be abolished – these are one-year courses which are described as apprenticeships to access funding but are largely academically based so a FTL graduate is far less ready to begin real employment than someone who has followed the traditional apprenticeship route of 4 days on site and one day a week in college over two or more years.

What do we as businesses need from Government to help us get involved with post-16 education? We said – incentives for veteran tradesmen to teach in college

There is concern amongst colleagues and local colleges that there is a lack of lecturers in the trades – a knock-on effect of the skills gap is that talented tradespeople are heading back out to private industry where they make far more money than in teaching. At a college local to us, for example, an advert for a joinery lecturer is still unanswered, three months after posting. We suggest that a ‘reverse apprenticeship’ could work – a scheme to encourage those approaching retirement, who want to pass on their skills but haven’t the energy for full time work on site, to teach apprentices in college and ensure skills are not lost due to the lack of available teachers. They and their employers would need incentivising to make up the shortfall in wages but we know of at least two individuals who would be very keen to take up a scheme of this kind.

This is a vast subject with many parties all wishing to improve the status quo, and the discussion was consequently really interesting. We hope Matthew’s contribution and that of the other witnesses, all of whom made a number of excellent points, will be of help in shaping the future of apprenticeship policies in favour of both the apprentices involved and the industries who badly need them. You can watch the debate in full here where it is archived at ParliamentLive TV