This time last year, I felt like I’d reached a career crossroads. After a decade as a freelance education journalist, which had definitely been more ‘feast than famine’, I had this nagging feeling that I needed a new challenge.

Expanding my business was the obvious answer; despite employing a part-time administrative assistant, and paying contractors to do transcription and research, I was still putting in far too many late nights and early mornings. And I was regularly turning down work – something no freelancer ever wants to do.

‘Hire an intern,’ friends told me. A bright, enthusiastic graduate, intent on a career in journalism, who would take on some of my workload for a few months in exchange for a Travelcard, free sarnies and a few tips of the trade.

But it wasn’t an idea that sat comfortably with me. A trainee journalist needs to be an accurate writer, have good research skills and plenty of initiative and determination – things that are not necessarily learned in a lecture theatre. And taking on a graduate intern – without making a decent stab of training them up on the job – just seemed exploitative to me.

So I decided to hire an apprentice. While they were helping me out with transcription and story research, I could give them hands on experience in how to think and write like a journalist.

The first challenge was finding an appropriate course. Much to my surprise, I found there was no apprenticeship curriculum or ‘framework’ for journalism– a trade in which employers traditionally grew their own staff, on the job, using apprenticeships and other kinds of traineeships.

And while it confirmed something I already suspected about journalism (that it has largely become a graduate – or even postgraduate – entry occupation), I was even more shocked to learn that in a time of heavy government investment in apprenticeships (around £3bn last year alone), there were no firm plans to introduce a vocational route into the profession.

Like many freelance journalists, I have a portfolio-style career, which includes writing for national newspapers, copywriting, training – and even organising events and conferences.

Harlow College, which had already trained the first MP’s apprentice, suggested my apprentice could follow the Business Administration framework – which includes optional modules on audio transcription, analysing and reporting data and designing and producing business documents –and it proved to be a perfect fit. Being able to draw on the college’s expertise in teaching journalism  (Harlow has an impressive list of alumni that includes Piers Morgan, Jeremy Clarkson and the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger) was an added bonus.

Following a national search, over 20 candidates were shortlisted for 30 hour a week role (including a day at college) at a rate of £6.08 an hour. And after a gruelling two-day assessment, which included tests in writing, spelling and current affairs, as well as a formal interview, the job went to 22-year-old Rhian Jones.

Having left school at 17, and spent four years working in shops, bars and call centres, she had everything I was looking for – drive, determination and good interpersonal skills – which (despite completing a year of a degree in English and media), I’m convinced she didn’t learn in a seminar room.

I spent four years teaching English in secondary schools and now lecture in journalism at a number of universities. But I quickly realised that classroom based teaching is a very different proposition to training someone on the job, in a real work situation. And it didn’t take me long to decide which method is more satisfying.

In a classroom environment, motivating even the most enthusiastic journalism students to find compelling stories and fascinating people to interview can be tough. Encouraging them to respond to feedback, and use it to improve their work, can also be a challenge – hardly surprising, given the fact it is only likely to be read by a handful of university lecturers.

Give a student  a real task, where they can see the results of their efforts in a newspaper, magazine – or even in a leaflet or brochure – and you see interest, enthusiasm and a determination to improve.  Few things are more motivating than knowing that if your work isn’t up to scratch you will have to do a rewrite – or worse still – your lovingly crafted article may not be published at all. These are tough lessons to learn and are not for the faint-hearted, but neither is journalism.

This is not to say classroom-based teaching doesn’t have value, or that universities don’t give students opportunities to get hands-on experience. But it is patchy: only a handful of universities facilitate really top-notch student journalism. And higher education institutions offering students access to high-quality work-based learning are still the exception rather than the norm.

Sadly, this is symptomatic of wider failings in the education system.

Young people are being educated in an increasingly narrow system that teaches them how to jump through hoops to pass exams. While I believe there is a place for learning for learning’s sake, this must be balanced with helping young people acquire knowledge and skills that will prove useful in the workplace.

I’d love to see some of the big newspapers publishing houses being bold enough to grow their own talent rather than cherry-picking the top graduates as they do now. Training an apprentice is time consuming, but the benefits of one-to-one to tuition, in a real work environment, are invaluable.

After six months with me (and three months earlier than planned) my apprentice is leaving me to take up a position as editorial assistant/junior reporter on the trade industry magazine Music Week – proof, if ever it was needed, that what do you can do is far more important than what you know.


‘You’re hired . . .’

by Rhian Jones

Before starting my journalism apprenticeship, it’s fair to say I’d had a few stabs at education. After leaving school I tried my hand at a BTEC Music Practice course, home A levels, an Access to HE Diploma and university. But instead of helping me grow, each stint left me feeling like I knew nothing about what I was good at.

After spending six months being mentored while learning on-the-job, I feel like I finally know my strengths. As well as developing my journalistic skills, I’ve gained so much on a personal level from the whole experience. I’ve learnt that my past failures in education haven’t been because I’m stupid, not good enough or a failure. They didn’t work for me because I wasn’t learning the right thing or wasn’t been taught in the way I learn best.

After my first year at university, I’d sat in a few lecture halls, submitted a couple of assignments and had more spare time than I knew what to do with. Yet the year felt like a constant struggle.

Within a few weeks of starting my apprenticeship, I was running around an exhibition hall at a conference, hunting for stories, interviewing and writing case studies for a copywriting project, calling people for quotes (including the head’s secretary at a top public school, who didn’t sound pleased to hear from me), as well as managing one hundred and fifty freedom of information requests (amongst many, many other things). Over the past six months, I’ve rarely had time to think and yet it’s been the easiest learning process of my life, because I’m learning the way I learn best.

The apprenticeship qualification has given me a good grounding of transferable knowledge which I know will help me in my working life. The individual attention I got from the one-to-one feedback really made me feel valued, and as a result, my confidence and self belief has grown.

The biggest incentive to produce my best work was the idea that it could be printed in national newspapers, so getting a byline held far more weight than submitting an essay to be graded objectively by one person, with little regard for my writing skills or creativity.

But before stumbling upon vocational qualifications, I had an idealistic view of academic education. I couldn’t wait to be regarded as ‘clever’ with my BA Hons certificate proudly framed. When I tried it and discovered that it wasn’t for me, I felt completely lost. Thankfully I was saved by my dream apprenticeship, but those once in a lifetime opportunities are few and far between.

So what about those young people who don’t ever get a chance to find out their strengths? The one thing I’ve taken from my extensive experience of education is that one size does not fit all. Sometimes you’ve got to try out a few things before finding what works for you.

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