I was blown away by the National Apprenticeship Awards this year. The ‘Bright Future’ tag line hit me more than in any other year as being a ‘real’ alternative to the stale old routes of university. I sat through the night listening to the many stories and thought, this is what I want my daughter to do. I want someone to invest in her like these employers are investing in these amazing young people. The opportunities, the possibilities, are huge and I think apprenticeships are now something to aspire to. They are not some form of alternative for the academically challenged. They are now offering the very best in skills and experience-based work experience and knowledge acquisition.
Looking back at my own schooling I realise how lucky I was to be a headteacher whose school was a Top 100 employer for the second year… and now (more than ever) I want to ensure that we are offering the very best opportunities to young apprentices in our local area. Schools are amazing places for an apprenticeship and I really want to take ours to the next level and look at how we could train teachers through this approach. I was inspired by one line from Simian who was promoting the Apprentice Ambassador Programme and co-hosting for the night when he said, “It doesn’t matter where you are from, it is what you become!”
I am now in a great position to help others and these words hit home hard… It made me think about who I was when I was leaving school.
On my very last day of secondary school I decided not to turn up. I didn’t think it would come as a surprise to anyone. I hated school and always felt school tolerated me at its weary best. I was an outsider and quite frankly I think most teachers were glad to see the back of me. I wasn’t particularly disruptive (no more than a talker in lessons), I was very rarely rude to teachers and I wasn’t violent in any way, shape or form. I was one of those… you know, ‘really difficult to reach’ kids. I was the type of student that now makes many a teacher look over their shoulder whenever the word ‘book scrutiny’ or ‘walk through’ is mentioned.
I just did not want to be there. I had developed a well-honed ability to drift out of school unnoticed between lessons, not get there at all or find reasons to not have to go in the first place. I became very skilled at ‘skiving’ – I was a damn fine shirker. I had spent about 50% of my final year skulking along the local seafront arcades playing Track and Field and Defender – but on reflection I was pretty rubbish at these as I usually had little money and spent most of the time watching other people play them. As you can imagine, my grades were pathetic.
On that very last day the school decided to act. I think it was because I had not handed in a few projects. I remember coming down the stairs of our council house and my nan (both my parents were at work) picking up the relentlessly ringing fake ivory dial phone. Without a word she hands it to me and walked in to the kitchen.
Mr Henry, head of year barks five words, “Walton! Get here… right now!” Twenty-five minutes later I was told I was being expelled. On the last day! For truancy! I don’t blame the school. I had it coming – but the irony was never lost on me.
As I sat at the table listening to the inspiring stories of the Apprentices around the room I realised that though my attitude stank at school I never had these opportunities. It was the academic root or get a manual labour factory job that was given terrible press from day one at secondary school. My chances of a job post school were almost zero. Luckily (depending on your perspective) there was an industrial estate not far from where I lived. They took anyone, I was told. My destiny reminded to me on regular occasions… a prophesy written in sweat and graft for the uneducated drop out. I marvel at the snobbery of attitudes towards the crafts and skills the industrial estate offered now. This is something the apprenticeship program is addressing. It’s not about poor performing students getting a second chance. The programme is aspirational and a real alternative to running up debt via a university degree that may not offer any job opportunity at the end. I was a school dropout, not because I was stupid… I was a drop out because I had no options and NO investment (In fact I am a classic August baby from a council estate and Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant Outliers clearly illustrate how little chance I had). I became a teacher and then a head teacher because people invested in me at a later date. I worked hard – no doubt about it – but I was inspired and driven by supportive people. The kind of people who see apprenticeships as worthwhile.
Sat at the Apprenticeship Awards this year and seeing beauticians, technicians, plumbers, lawyers, mechanics, gardeners, dog groomers, dentists, pubs, coffee shops, hotels, financers and kitchen fitters all celebrated for the best in training and opportunity alongside the BBC, Royal Air Force and Lloyds Bank was a real highlight for me. We were the only school I could see on the list. I was surprised that there are not more. Schools are the perfect place for an apprenticeship. Schools should be the places where dreams are built on and made to happen… not a place no one wants to be, not a place where drop-outs can go unnoticed until the last day of school… I have a new mission… I will champion apprentiships like never before.