Degree apprenticeships – the perfect start?

Earn while you learn degree apprenticeships are tempting smart school leavers away from university. In this as yet unregulated new territory, how do schools sniff out the best opportunities? Nicky Adams speaks to the professional guidance team at Felsted School

“For young people who are committed to a high-flying career and can’t wait to get started, degree apprenticeships can be the ideal launchpad,” says Louise Scofield, director of professional guidance at the 1,000-pupil Felsted School, an hour from London but in the heart of the north Essex countryside.

She continues: “So, it’s vital we’re able to give our students all the information and skills they need to make the most of these great opportunities.”

While the concept of apprenticeships is not a new one – think Medieval guilds – it’s only in the last few years that employers have begun to take on young people with a view to financing their study for a degree-level qualification, while at the same time giving them ‘a proper job’ in the company, with a proper salary to go with it.

This combination of education and paid employment is music to the ears of many sixth-formers. The prospect of racking up an average £44,000 debt while studying for a degree at university and then plunging into the highly competitive graduate job market is enough to strike fear into the heart of even the straight-A student. How much less stressful to earn while you learn and know that you are being prepared exactly to your employer’s specifications for a long and successful career?

A lot of them were unaware that apprentices have a much lower drop-out rate than university students and that they can look forward to higher lifetime earnings than even Russell group graduates

Certainly, degree apprenticeships are the long game – and, in future, they could be the only game. “We hear some employers say they may no longer offer graduate roles, just degree apprenticeships,” says Scofield, adding: “So we do put a lot of effort into communicating to our students, and their parents, that the apprenticeship packages now being presented by employers in the UK may be as successful as Russell Group degrees in accessing the top careers and indeed, some degree apprentices are projected to have higher lifetime earnings than a Russell Group graduate.” 

Growing career path

Banking and finance, administrative services, IT and technology firms in particular have seized on degree apprenticeships as the preferred method of immersing their young proteges in the company culture at an early age and currently 282 UK companies are offering recognised degree apprenticeship programmes. This number grows almost daily, thanks to the government’s new requirement for companies with an annual payroll of more than £3m to contribute to the apprenticeships levy fund, which the firms may then use to create their own apprenticeship programmes. 

Representatives from all of these business sectors, as well as apprenticeships experts, jumped at the chance to attend Felsted’s annual Careers and Higher Education Fair last December, which brought together year 12 students from schools across East Anglia with their potential future employers, and proved to be something of an eye-opener for many. Felsted also held its first-ever Futures Conference last June where Year 12 students attended sessions specifically focused on apprenticeships.

“The vast majority of the students attending were fully expecting to go on to university after school, so some were quite surprised to discover that degree apprenticeships are a really viable alternative,” says Sally Everist, director of the Good Schools Guide: Careers, one of the invited speakers. 

“A lot of them were unaware that apprentices have a much lower drop-out rate than university students and that they can look forward to higher lifetime earnings than even Russell group graduates.”

Established three years ago with a remit to cut through some of the confusion surrounding degree apprenticeships, the Good Schools Guide: Careers has been working with careers advisers at Felsted and other schools across the UK to bring some much-needed information to students as young as 13. 

“Professional guidance at Felsted begins with bespoke careers advice to students in Years 9 and 10 through PSHE lessons and builds through workshops and fortnightly timetabled careers lessons for Year 11s,” says Scofield. 

“We often run talks by former pupils who are now on degree apprenticeships, which the current students find very inspiring.” 

Students in Years 12 and 13 discuss the whole range of careers in tutorials and half-term workshops, and Scofield plans to host further Futures Conferences too. 

“It’s important that all of the post-18 options are included in our dialogue,” she says, “but we find that degree apprenticeships need the most explanation and we use a whole range of methods to communicate. Social media is useful for this – Felsted’s professional guidance department has its own profile on several channels and we are very active, passing on information on employers and advice on apprenticeships and how best to apply for them. We do find that some parents can be quite reluctant to consider alternative pathways, so this is a great way to reach them too.”

Advice on finding degree apprenticeship opportunities is particularly valuable, so the professional guidance team includes a specialist apprenticeships adviser. “There is no central admissions system for apprentices as there is for prospective university students,” laments Scofield. 

Felsted School

“Instead some are advertised on the government apprenticeships website, others are on employers’ websites and UCAS advertises a few, so there’s a lot of legwork. The Good Schools Guide: Careers has recently compiled its own directory of degree apprenticeships, complete with a summary of what each one comprises and links to the employers’ application form, so we’re finding that helpful.”

Once they have tracked down the ideal degree apprenticeship, young people expecting the application process to be a walk in the park are in for more hard work.

“These are actually job applications,” reminds Scofield, continuing: “Unlike UCAS there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ personal statement. 

Each apprenticeship application requires a CV and a tailored covering letter, so we focus on developing students’ CV writing, interview technique and even teach them what to do in the dreaded group task situation. These are skills young people going to university don’t usually need until they are applying for a graduate position, but now we are bringing them forward and into school.”

Felsted’s professional guidance team hones and builds on attributes their students already have. “There is a lot of emphasis throughout their school careers on developing personal qualities through activities such as DofE, CCF, group projects, team games and charity work, for example,” says Scofield. 

“They build confidence through drama and the generally supportive environment where it is acceptable to speak up; and public speaking through the long tradition of debating and activities such as Model United Nations. These are all invaluable when it comes to applying for apprenticeships or jobs.”

Success stories

Indeed, Felsted students have bagged impressive apprenticeships in recent years. 

William Alexander, who left the school in 2017, was among the first intake to the Dyson University, where he studies for an engineering degree two days a week while also working for the innovative British technology company.

He says: “We have help from engineers across Dyson and academics from the University of Warwick on a one-to-one basis to make sure we are confident with what we are learning. When we’re in the workplace, we’re in teams with Dyson engineers, working on live projects helping to solve real-world problems, and at the end of the course I am guaranteed employment if I get a 2:1.”

Meanwhile Luke Johnson, who left the same year, passed up an offer to study maths at Warwick University to join City of London Big Four accountancy firm Deloitte on its BrightStart Higher Apprenticeship Programme.

He says: “Deloitte offered a career path while studying, so I had no hesitation in accepting. 

I enjoy being in a working environment, where I can put the skills I’m learning into practice and I’ll qualify as an accountant within five years with good career prospects here.”

He spends around a fifth of his working hours studying for his ACA qualification and the rest of the time travelling the country looking after clients in a range of industries.

“William and Luke are typical of Felsted students,” says Scofield, adding: “They are bright and hardworking of course, but they also have the breadth and depth of character that make them real assets to top companies. That’s why it’s so vital that all of our students have the information they need to negotiate the application process and make the most of these superb new degree apprenticeship opportunities.”


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