Some images of injustice are hard to erase

Some images are hard to shake. Year 6s crying for fear they will “fail” their primary tests. Year 11s drawing on each others’ shirts as they disappear for study leave. Michael Gove making speeches about his knowledge of “Indian sex manuals” (it’s three years now and I’m still not over it).

But, from this week’s paper, one image is going to haunt me more than these. It’s that of a 16-year-old turning up to a fancy private school in order to study for a diploma in “sports turf” management by looking after its cricket, rugby, football and polo grounds, in return for a meagre £3.50 an hour, while other 16-year-olds pay £35,000 a year to study the A-levels which help “the majority” go on to elite universities, according to the school’s own website.

From one perspective, there’s nothing wrong with this. From another, everything is.

Perhaps it isn’t Cheltenham College’s fault that the minimum wage for apprentices under the age of 19 is £3.50. Despite decades of equal pay acts, this country continues, for unfathomable reasons, to allow companies to pay the young a disgustingly low wage.

The school is helping the government meet a target of three million apprentices, a target that’s so beloved that the law was even changed in April to oblige all state-funded schools to allow training providers to promote apprenticeships to pupils. And while £3.50 may not seem so appealing, to a young person with a struggling family, that £130-a-week they get in return for around 30 hours of labour per week is better than nothing, which is what they would receive for studying A-levels. You can see why teachers gurn at the new rules.

The apprentice is, literally, laying the foundation for other young people to walk into higher paid professions

But from the other direction, it feels very wrong: this is a level two apprenticeship, and the advertisement says it would prefer applicants to have GCSEs in English and maths already. This is not about offering a job to someone who may have few other training options. And while around one day a week is spent in college, the majority of the time will be spent doing actual work for which the apprentice will receive the lowest possible wage: £3.50 an hour.

The word “minimum” is critical: there is nothing to stop an employer paying more. Many do. The 2014 Apprenticeship Pay Survey by the government found the average level two apprentice was on £6.29 per hour. Even the lowest paid sector, hairdressing, had an average of £3.95 per hour – which could be topped-up with tips.

There’s also something uncomfortable about the juxtaposition of this particular apprenticeship. The apprentice is, literally, laying the foundation for other young people to walk into higher paid professions. One young person can’t even dream of the opportunities afforded to the other. Even if they go on to get the sort of job open to someone with a level two in sports turf management, qualified groundskeeper jobs typically only offer around £12,000 a year – the third of the price of one year of A-levels.

But, so what, says the reader. So you’re telling me some kids don’t get the education of others? That’s not news. Is this just class envy and a cheap pop at the wealthy? Maybe.

Or maybe, as I said, it’s simply that some images are hard to shake. And as the new dawn breaks on June 9, I can’t help but feel the education secretary must take this image to heart and ask if it’s really the Britain they want. Is this the best we can do for apprentices? Should wages be so low?

Why are A-levels considered so elusive. Will grammars help inequality? Should  the education maintenance allowance happen? Is giving £11 billion for free university places, some of which will go to privately educated children, smart? Are £9,000 tuition fees too much? Can we honestly, hand on heart, say that we believe the message that this whole set-up gives is that apprenticeships and universities offer equal opportunities and outcomes for everyone?

As I write, I don’t know who won the election. But I do know that if this image, of a 16-year-old mowing the lawn at a boarding school for £3.50 an hour, is etched onto their minds, the new government might just act responsibility as they are handed the keys to the kingdom.

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