From education to employment

#Apprenticeships – Are Employers Really In The Driving Seat?

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of Association of Employment and Learning Providers

It was really encouraging to listen to skills minister Anne Milton’s latest interview with FE News when she called for the Institute (IfATE) to be more responsive and open.

This coincided with the Institute announcing that the level 3 standard for an early years educator had finally been approved which prompted a tweet that suggested that children who were in nursery when the trailblazer process first started are probably studying for their GCSEs now.

The childcare example has clearly shown why the Institute needed to up its game in terms of ‘Faster, Better’ and it was also a case of where many employers in the sector felt that they were most definitely not ‘in the driving seat’ as far as the formulating of standards were concerned.

It was the government that created the ‘driving seat’ mantra for its skills strategy and the apprenticeship reforms, and employer frustration with how much it really meant in practice has been increasingly apparent over recent years.

Most recently, we have seen it visible in response to the Institute’s resistance to public and private sector employers pushing a level 2 standard for Business Administration.

AELP’s membership includes employer providers who have made their views known and frustration was also being fed back from our other members who engage with over 350,000 employers to support their training needs.

This is why AELP teamed up with the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) to undertake some qualitative research to delve deeper into the issue.

The resulting report has certainly grabbed the attention of the employer representative bodies and we can expect to hear them say more on the subject before and at the AELP annual conference which takes place towards the end of June.

The AELP / FETL research involved inviting 81 FE and skills sector leaders and employers to nine roundtable discussions around England.

These leaders concluded that the policy aiming to put employers in the driving seat on skills had had little impact.

Instead they believed:

  • Employers are no more in the driving seat now than they ever were and only big employers can be
  • Instead the government has changed the narrative about the sector’s purpose and the state is still really in the driving seat
  • Many employers prefer to rely on expertise of training providers rather than doing it all themselves
  • Not much training would happen if providers weren’t around
  • Frustration exists over not being able to meet SME demand for apprenticeships
  • Concern exists over not meeting enough the needs of individual learners, lower skills provision and the social mobility agenda
  • Sector needs to blow its own trumpet more and be more assertive of what its role should be and
  • ‘Just surviving’ is now almost an aim in itself.

My own view was that it was right that government felt that there needed to be a step change, but its energy and the change were focused at the wrong things in the wrong way.

Employers have been engaged and want to engage; they want to contribute but need some structure to work within and appropriate rules and guidance to follow. 

Many are not training and education experts, many are not assessment experts, but they certainly know the skills they want; so let’s use the employers for what they are good at. 

Of course, if they want to deliver, if they want to assess, if they want to fulfil other roles, that’s wonderful, but we cannot expect this at every level in every sector.

So what is the way forward?

To manage the expectations and burdens on employers, we need to address and do the following:  

1. The curriculum and syllabus

Employers, alongside those experienced in articulating curriculum, should define the curriculum, and continuously review it with small tweaks and adjustments to keep it relevant year on year.

Defining the knowledge skills and behaviour needed in the workplace now and in the future is the most fundamental role and it should be dominated by the employers and those that work with them.

2. Assessment experts

Assessment needs to be defined by assessment experts (Awarding Bodies / Ofqual) to ensure a valid and reliable judgement of the knowledge, skills and behaviour that have been defined by the employers.

This is not easy – but there are people who have spent their lives trying to get it right and they should be trusted to help define the approach.

3. The cost of delivery

The cost of delivery for training and assessment should be determined by those involved (providers / Ofsted).

In adult care, providers support apprentices who typically are employed for 48 hours a week, so based on their paid hours, ESFA rules are requiring a minimum of at least 9½ hours a week just for the off-the-job training, plus time for maths and English on top.

On the funding available, that equates to an unsustainable £5.55 per hour of off-the-job assuming there is no cost for on-the-job training and supporting the apprentice. No wonder starts for this vital sector have tumbled.

Government stubbornly remains in the driving seat

The research concluded that government stubbornly remains in the driving seat but if everyone is allowed to drive the appropriate part of the system, we should have something that everyone owns, supports and commits to make work.

There are mini examples, or green shoots, of where this is working now – it can be done. We heard about some of them during the research.

But they are working despite they system, often bending the rules and often not a sustainable model.

I look forward to hearing what the employer organisations themselves say about this.

Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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