From education to employment

Apprenticeship Standards – Ten years and counting

Chris Cherry

In this article, on the tenth anniversary of the launch of apprenticeship standards, Chris Cherry reflects on the original plans for new standards, how the policy and the stakeholder map has evolved and asks if we are where we intended to be way back when.

It’s almost unbelievable that apprenticeship standards have been with us for ten years. When I was at LSIS (remember them?) in the heady days of the apprenticeship reforms, we were working on the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning, the Vision 2015 (then 2020) for further education and skills and the review of apprenticeships undertaken by a certain ex-Dragon (Doug Richards as a part of the Richards Review). Despite the quirky font and cover image and happy-clappy launch events overseen by the (then) BIS, the reforms landed well with most, if not all the key stakeholders of the time.

The ever-changing landscape

The ever-changing landscape has moved on since 2012/13 and I thought it might be interesting to share some perspectives on where the policy was supposed to take us and where we have arrived at in 2023.

When I was editing and refining the findings of the Review with colleagues at BIS, we collectively predicted that apprenticeship competence statements written by employer groups were never going to actually happen. It was hard to imagine a maximum of 100 (yes, 100) occupational standards, written on one page of A4 (please don’t make the font less than Arial 10), accompanied by a plan to validate competence (the end-point assessment). We could not imagine a group of employers tackling the nuances of assessment methods and validating evidence through professional discussions. But here we go.

The then Minister for Skills (now who would that be?) launched the first ten or so Trailblazer apprenticeships to great fanfare. The consultation with employers had almost exclusively been with larger employers, who could both spare the time to contribute and who could supply the early apprentices for the new programmes. We’ve never truly shaken off the opinion that standards are for larger employers, but we have come a long way.

There were lots of mistakes made in the policy at the time – it’s expected where something has been created that is so radically different. The notion of three million apprenticeships was not based on evidence, but whim, the funding reforms that saw the end of age restrictions and the concept of the levy, were not anticipated in the creation of apprenticeship standards a few years beforehand.

The levy has been a difficult one. The principle of mandated funding does not have a wide application in English education and it took time to get our collective heads around it. Again, it reinforced the focus on larger employers with a large payroll (what’s a paybill?)

Then along came the Institute for Apprenticeships. The Technical Education bit came later. It was created to get a handle on the policy and its application. The first few meetings (working on its purpose) focused on getting some smoothness in the quality of standards and assessment plans, as well as limiting the expansion of occupations. Latterly we’ve seen the inclusion of ‘Duties’ in standards and a narrowing of assessment methods deemed to be valid in confirming competence.

Sensible notions it could be argued, but when I look back at my original notes from the policy I read, ‘must ensure that employers have the final say on what constitutes occupational competence and let them lead us on the most relevant form of assessment. We must not allow government to tell an employer what they need.’

Consequences of policy implementation

Some of the consequences of policy implementation, compliance and this close oversight of the implementation are fundamentally different from those anticipated (and desired) by the policy.

For reasons of experience (for another day) we don’t have a Level 2 in Business Administration, we have standards covering incredibly niche areas that could never have been anticipated as occupying one of the one hundred slots envisaged by our man in the jungle. We also have apprenticeship funding being used to fund learners who could quite easily acquire the skills through different or self-funding routes. We have highly technical and professional qualifications underpinned by apprenticeship funding. None of this was anticipated as being the natural evolution of highly vocational and critical skills gaps in 2012.

In the final draft of the Review is the following statement:

And, whereas historically, an apprenticeship was at its very heart a relationship between an employer and an apprentice, too often that is not the case today – apprenticeships instead becoming a government-led training programme, shaped by training professionals not employers. The relationship between an employer and an apprentice must once again rise to the fore.

In ten years, we have implemented not one hundred but over eight hundred standards. The original philosophy of highly vocational occupations at the fore has widened to include some for which an apprenticeship is an awkward fit. The updating of standards and assessment plans has created some outcomes that are less than ideal in terms of assessment validity and competence is less easily assured.

It is ten years since the Review was published and we’re still hearing about ‘new standards’ and colleagues for whom the transition from frameworks is still new and surprising. It was an enormous upheaval to the system, that required all stakeholders from politicians, through the various and changing government departments, the institutes and regulators and all training providers to understand what it was we were trying to create.

My notes at the time summarised what BIS at the time wanted:

A maximum of 100 occupational standards, closely linked to occupations for which an apprenticeship is most applicable, the standard is to include statements of Knowledge, Skills and Behaviours – written as outcomes for apprentices to read.

They should include a role profile or some statement about the occupation. There will be a test that demonstrates that the apprentice can take the knowledge and expertise they have gained and apply it in a real world context to a new, novel problem.

The final test and validation must be holistic

The final test and validation must be holistic, in that it seeks to test the full breadth of the relevant competencies not merely the incremental progression of the apprentice. That may take the form of a project or an assessment in front of an examiner. It should be performance and real world based, rather than just theoretical. It should be primarily at the end of an apprenticeship, not measuring progress during it. And the examiners should be neutral parties with no interest in the outcome, drawn from the ranks of employers as well as educators, since employers themselves are best able to assess what makes an apprentice employable. In this regard we can learn from our continental peers.

Eligibility will be focused on those for whom an apprenticeship is the most logical progression. Standards can include higher education and degrees, but the occupations need not have a qualification embedded (actually to be discouraged). The apprenticeship target will need a rethink on age banding and an opening of eligibility criteria. Apprentices must change occupation for progression, not just ladder up from Level 2 to Level 3 etc.

So here we are ten years on

We can be deflected by some of the data – low take up, higher than desirable non-completion and drop out as well as lower achievement. These are critical metrics of a healthy apprenticeship ecosystem, but on a wider and higher level the questions should continually be asked – is our vocational and training system delivering the ever changing skills needs of our economy? Is the qualification and accreditation system nimble enough to cope with ‘drag and drop’ skills? And does tax-paid funding act as a lubricant enabler? Does it bring opportunity, or does it constrain progress for fear of misuse of our limited resources? These were questions in front of us in 2012 and are still there today.

I’d be really interested to hear if you all think that apprenticeship standards have been successful, have a place in a dynamic skills system and have met the original philosophy outlined by the Review way back when.

By Chris Cherry, Director, Red Cherry Projects

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