From education to employment

Academic standards must not be permitted to threaten the role of Apprenticeships


Although I am broadly in favour of the outcomes of the Wolf Report and welcome the government’s clear-cut commitment to the development and promotion of high quality vocational learning, I do feel that there are some outstanding issues that need to be addressed.

One area that is causing concern among my colleagues is the question of apprenticeships and whether they should include a compulsory element of academic learning, as is currently being proposed. Many young people choose the apprenticeship route to a successful, highly paid career precisely because an academic course is not for them. We need to be careful that we do not introduce over-strenuous limitations that might discourage school-leavers from fully exploring this option.

There is also the issue of finding the time to facilitate more institution-based learning. Most employers who take advantage of apprenticeship schemes are happy to release their trainees one day per week, but anything more than this could become a financial and logistical issue. We need to find the right balance if we want to maintain the commitment of existing employers and attract new participants, who are vital to facilitate the growth of apprenticeship programmes.

I should state that I am totally committed to the belief that apprentices should have a reasonable grounding in English and Maths, the question is how that should be achieved and what level of attainment should be expected. This is crucial because, if we get it wrong, the whole system may be put at risk. In some cases, apprenticeships appeal to those who may not be academically suited, yet may be highly skilled in other areas, offering a potential asset to society and the economy. This is something that we must nurture.

Recent research by Nick Linford, a leading consultant on the learning and skills sector, revealed that only 47 percent of apprenticeship providers are currently meeting their targets for attracting companies to take on young people. Even more worrying, 93 percent said they were concerned about the new SASE standards coming into force on April 6th. Together with the Wolf Report recommendations, these new guidelines threaten a double whammy that could severely affect the apprenticeships system.

One key fear is that, with all of the media coverage that new regulations and academic stipulations are receiving, employers will simply look elsewhere. This would be a great shame when apprenticeships remain one of the most effective forms of employee recruitment and training, both from a logistical and financial point of view. It is the responsibility of awarding organisations, training providers and colleges to respond proactively to this potentially negative outlook by ensuring that the apprenticeship system still meets the highest standards of training and personal development.

We need to remind employers and the wider population that apprenticeships are a proven training method with roots that go back hundreds of years. In their modern incarnation, they offer a unique mix of practical experience and vocational learning, combined with the support that young people need to excel in their chosen career. Research by the National Apprenticeship Service has shown that there is huge public support for businesses that offer apprenticeships, with 80 percent of respondents more likely to use a business for this reason. This is something that we need to build upon.

Over the next few months, the Department for Education (DfE) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will be consulting on the outcomes and recommendations of the Wolf Report, looking at how the academic element should be integrated and how the apprenticeship system serves young people who may wish to advance to further and higher education. This is something that should be given full consideration and support, while being very careful not to forget the needs of less academic young people who have found their natural home within the apprenticeships framework.

If the new guidelines are to focus on attainment in Maths and English, as has been suggested, it is important to recognise that there are varying degrees of learning ability among young apprentices, just as you will find on any academic course. We need to ensure that key skills can become an integral part of the system without creating the impression, either real or illusory, that these requirements might exclude young people of lower academic attainment.

If the government is totally committed to the concept of academic attainment as an integral part of apprenticeship programmes, it is vital that employers and training organisations are consulted effectively about the findings of the Wolf Report and how they are to be addressed. NCFE works with training providers across the UK and each one is different, offering a unique insight into the needs of individuals and their communities. To legislate for change without proper discussion could be a foolhardy exercise.

David Grailey is the chief executive of NCFE, the qualification awarding body

Read other FE News articles by David Grailey:

NCFE CEO David Grailey on why it’s vital we support learners to ‘Get Set for Work’

Shining examples of entrepreneurship

Delivering what is right for learners in the face of major sector changes

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