26/10/2015 12:52 GMT | Updated 26/10/2016 06:12 BST

A Conveyor Belt Age? Ofsted's Apprenticeship Report and the Need for a 'Year of Service'

Did you know what you wanted to do on leaving school or university and stuck to it? No? You're not alone. A survey from last year found that only half of all UK graduates work in a field related to their degree, while 96 per cent said they had switched careers by the time they were 24.

More recently, newspaper headlines have been dominated by Ofsted's report on apprenticeships. As well as raising issues around quality and accreditation for 'coffee making', Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of Ofsted, described the five per cent of 16-year-olds going into an apprenticeship as, "little short of a disaster." An IPPR report in the summer found that, "since 2010, 42 per cent of starting apprentices have been over the age of 25, rather than being young people finding their way into work."

My initial reaction was outrage; with youth unemployment still more than two-and-a-half times that of the wider population it beggared belief that older workers should be pushing out the next generation. But then I looked again at Ofsted's findings; employers responding to a questionnaire reported difficulty in recruiting younger apprentices. It made me think, how many 16-year-olds have a clear idea that an apprenticeship is for them and how many feel ready to take that step?

We live in a conveyor belt age; with an expectation that young people should travel seamlessly from school to university or apprenticeship and then on to career. But what if someone wants to get off, before their journey's even begun, or mid-way, because they're not sure they're going in the right direction?

However much schools can and are doing on careers and employer engagement some young people will still need more time and the chance to grow up in their own way. We need to find different ways to give them the breathing space to discover their strengths and weaknesses, find out what they're passionate about and even try on different roles for size, including ones they may never have heard of before.

David Harbourne, acting chief executive of the Edge Foundation, recently called for a 'skills gap year' to help school leavers think carefully about their career choices before committing to potentially unsuitable qualifications.

I would argue that the 'year of service' model, like the one we operate at City Year UK, already offers that--developing skills while making a positive impact on society; in our case educational inequality.

One of the key training sessions at City Year UK covers 'career exploration', where professionals from a range of backgrounds discuss their work journeys. Every year I watch our young people experience a light-bulb moment when they realise their first job is just a stepping stone, not a job for life, and that most careers aren't linear. Most people take a long and winding road.

One of City Year UK's alumni recently summed up her experience. She described her time at university as, "a dark period," not because she hadn't enjoyed it but because she hadn't learnt anything about herself; who she wanted to be and where she wanted to go. By contrast, her year of service, wearing City Year's iconic red jacket, is still serving her today. She says: "What the red jacket did for me, it made me grow as a person, made me find my voice, the person I want to be. It got me the job, it got me to the door and opened the door. The skills I learnt during my time in that red jacket--the belief, confidence, fearlessness--they're still serving me."


Young people hear so much about the need to do well in their exams but virtually nothing on the need to invest in themselves as people, and yet that's what will set them up for success in the workplace--and in life. Young people face so many challenges during their transition to adulthood and employment. Giving them the tools to do that successfully is surely the responsibility of our society. Ofsted's report should be a wake-up call to make that a reality.