NAW2023: Stockton Riverside College Assistant Principal, Rebecca Cadden, talks apprenticeships

Apprenticeships have always, rightly, been celebrated for the on-the-job training they provide, but also for their unique potential for equipping apprentices with ‘Skills for Life’.

Stockton Riverside College Assistant Principal, Rebecca Cadden

At the Education Training Collective (Etc.) our colleges are situated in Teesside, where trades such as welding, manufacturing and engineering did literally provide skills for life – that was their basis. The apprentice would start on a pathway and continue on that route, either in the same role or progressing through levels – often until they reached retirement.

Since those days, other sectors, job roles and industries have recognised the benefits, using those same methodologies to create new apprenticeships – in industries such as creative, digital and media – this has resulted in a variety of on-the-job training that is richer than ever before, not just for our youngsters but for adults too.

In the last decade, apprenticeships have experienced something of a roller-coaster, spiking in terms of popularity, going from being the ‘in’ careers pathway, falling out of favour and then back again – often with overt alignment with other programmes, such as traineeships, and ‘return to work’ schemes. And that’s not to mention the jolt that pandemic lockdowns have served up.

As reported in FE Week (January 2023), according to provisional in-year Department for Education data apprenticeship starts in England dropped by six percent in the first quarter of 2022/23 and are three percent down on the same period in 2019, pre-pandemic.

But, as National Apprenticeship Week draws to a close, should this be reason for despondency, on a journey that we have already likened to a rollercoaster? I would like to think not. The same data shows that take up of higher apprenticeships has continued to grow, at our colleges we have witnessed students moving on to higher apprenticeship programmes that they could never have imagined a few years ago.

Today, T Levels are the new skills ‘kid on the block’ but far from working in competition with an apprenticeship, the reality could be that they work alongside, offering the employer a more holistic approach to skills for the future, and the learner a broader scope of post-secondary choice than ever before.

As is always the case when a new learning route is introduced, there is a lot to unpick and understand, but with T Levels having been on the roll-out across the UK since 2020, they are now becoming more embedded, and a solid part of the curriculum offer.

For employers, T Levels should not be a distraction from an apprenticeship, rather they are complementary. Each offers their own benefits to both the learner and employer – right learner, right employer, right course.

At Stockton Riverside College – part of the Etc. – we believe in apprenticeships and we champion our employers and communities to recognise the role that an apprentice plays in society and the workplace; it is this recognition and understanding that is the fundamental difference between a student leaving education with just the bare essentials and one who flourishes, completing their apprenticeship ready to be part of the workforce of the future. I can think of so many examples where the learner has thrived and as a result, the employer has seen their business positively impacted.

When we think about ‘Skills for Life’, we’re not just considering those learnt in the classroom, but those honed in the workplace – traditional practical skills in a chosen trade or discipline and a real understanding of what it means to be in the world of work. Surely these, combined, either as part of a T Level, a mixture of classroom-based learning with work experience or an apprenticeship, are what make up the perfect blend when it comes to building skills for life!