Apprentices "15% more employable" than everyone else. Why only 15?

You choose plumbing over philosophy; you expect to get a job.

For a while now we've been given to believe apprenticeships are the solution to all sorts of problems, like the current gap between the skilled employed and the unskilled unemployed. As I wrote a couple of months ago:

There seems to be a disconnect between educators and employers - the sectors crying out for workers (IT, engineering), match the university courses with the empty lecture halls.

How do you address this? Well, one idea is to pour money into apprentice schemes and funded places at technical colleges - which the government is, to some extent, doing. (For example, there's the Employer Ownership Pilot, a 250m funded training scheme for employers).

And last month George Osborne announced an extra £180m of funding to create 50,000 new apprenticeships. Are the schemes and the push working though? Well today the BBC has reported that qualified apprentices are 15 per cent "more employable" than people with other qualifications, according to a survey of 500 firms.

Here's the BBC:

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock said: "We want apprenticeships or university to become the new norm for young people leaving school and higher apprenticeships are an excellent way to enter high-profile careers while also achieving a degree-level qualification."

David Way, executive director, National Apprenticeship Service said: "We know that apprenticeships deliver real business benefits for employers."

15 per cent sounds great - but if you make the decision to study, say, plumbing, rather than philosophy, you are likely to be basing that decision on the idea that plumbing makes you quite considerably more employable. Maybe even completely employable. Yet in the survey apprentices scored 7.36 out of a possible 10 for "employability" as opposed to a 6.382 average of other qualifications (hence the 15 per cent difference) - still quite some way off the desirable 10.

Many problems with the government apprentice scheme have already been highlighted - inadequate training, false advertising, exploitation by employers. But it's worth noting that this survey is just an opinion poll (no commitment involved) - looking at whether employers think these kinds of schemes make people more likely to get jobs. It seems there's still some convincing to do.

Philosophy students can prove they are not a spanner. But this isn't always enough Photograph: Getty Images
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.