From education to employment

Apprenticeship reforms merit a trial run

David Harbourne is director of policy and research at Edge

The government has announced major changes to apprenticeships based on new, much simpler apprenticeship standards. The reforms merit at least a trial run.

The new standards will tackle two problems that have – arguably – held apprenticeships back for the last thirty years.

The first is plain English. When National Vocational Qualifications were first announced, they were riddled with terms such as performance criteria, underpinning knowledge and range statements. This was a huge barrier to many employers – and Apprentices, for that matter.

On top of that, Apprentices were assessed as they went along. Skills and knowledge were accredited throughout the apprenticeship, not just at the end. Because awarding organisations had the right to see records of every assessment, every apprentice needed a “portfolio of evidence”. This was widely seen as bureaucratic and time consuming, even if it did mean that Apprentices were credited for progress made along the way.

The government has decided to tackle both issues head on.

First, each job will be described on a single side of A4: the “apprenticeship standard”. This will sum up the skills and knowledge needed to perform a particular occupation. The “single side of A4” is important – there’s less chance employers will be baffled by jargon.

Second, there will be a high-stakes assessment at the end of every apprenticeship. This will take away the need to create hefty portfolios of evidence. Instead, there will be a mixture of written and practical tests covering all the knowledge and skills described in the apprenticeship standard. Apprentices will also have to meet minimum standards in English and maths. If all goes well, they get their certificate – and in another positive change, they’ll get an overall grade: pass, merit or distinction.

The new approach is going to be tested by eight employer partnerships, or as the government puts it, “trailblazers”. Jobs covered at this stage include aviation fitters, mechatronics technicians, software developers, maintenance engineers and laboratory technicians.

The government believes the new approach will boost the overall quality of apprenticeships and make them easier to understand. These aims are excellent, and there’s a lot to be said for the government’s “back to basics” approach. Overall, therefore, Edge supports the idea of new apprenticeship standards.

But we do have concerns, partly about things the government hasn’t said. For example, there’s no mention of trade unions, despite the strong support they provide at present.

Similarly, the government hasn’t mentioned Sector Skills Councils. The implication is that they are going to be left to wither away.

That’s a pity. SSCs were set up to represent the views of diverse groups of employers on skills, training and the labour market. They have had a mixed press, but the government is wrong to write them off. They have many years’ experience of developing qualifications; they know their labour market; and they are in touch with many employers – points recognised in a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

No doubt the government will say, “Yes, but we’ve heard from many employers who have never been consulted”. Fair enough; but will the new approach change that?

The guidance for trailblazers names around sixty businesses, who will lead work on a dozen apprenticeship standards. They will have to submit evidence that other employers have been involved in developing the standard, including letters of support from “at least five employers (including smaller employers) that are representative of the sector”. That’s fine as far as it goes, but will the trailblazers really have better employer contacts than Semta (the SSC for engineering, science and manufacturing) or Energy and Utility Skills? It seems very unlikely.

Next, the trailblazers focus mainly on occupations which already benefit from strong employer investment in apprenticeships, high completion rates and relatively low staff turnover. The implementation plan almost entirely ignores craft and service occupations.

We’d like to see a trailblazer in hospitality, for example. It would be good to get employers together to sum up the skills and knowledge needed to work as a chef in a Chinese restaurant, a prison kitchen or a 5* hotel. Maybe it can be done on a single side of A4; or maybe these are three different occupations. A trailblazer would help us find out.

We also have concerns about the requirement for 20% off-the-job training. This sounds fine in theory, but it’s very inflexible. If an apprenticeship lasts two years, apprentices will spend over 90 days on off-job training (after allowing for holidays). That might be entirely appropriate where there is a lot of theory to cover or where techniques can only be taught safely away from the production line; but is it really necessary in all occupations?

The biggest risk of the lot is the separate consultation – recently concluded – about funding apprenticeships. We are really worried that apprenticeship numbers will fall dramatically if the government presses ahead with mandatory employer contributions to external training and assessment costs.

Summing up, we regret that the SSC baby is being thrown out with the bathwater, we worry about some of the details, we’d like to see trailblazers dedicated to craft and service occupations, and we’re worried about the money. But as we said earlier, apprenticeship standards deserve at least a trial run.

David Harbourne is director of policy and research at Edge, the independent education charity dedicated to raising the status of technical, practical and vocational learning

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