From education to employment

Apprenticeships: learning from Leitch

With apprenticeship policy very much in the spotlight, I was interested to read a new report by John Denham, “Employer Support for Higher Level Skills”.

As Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Denham was responsible for the 2007 White Paper, “World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England”. Today, he is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics.

Looking back at the skills strategy he helped implement, Professor Denham reached some damning conclusions:

  • The business department’s understanding of employer decision-making was poor
  • Employer engagement was almost entirely with employers who do train, rather than those who do not
  • The Leitch Report lacked any detailed assessment of the drivers of skills demand in the UK economy and did not involve research on how employers would respond to the strategy
  • Delivery models underpinning the skills strategy were not properly considered or understood
  • The combination of financial incentives and targets created perverse outcomes.

Prof Denham also comments on the current government’s apprenticeship plan, calling it a “policy with roots in the financial strategy of the Treasury, rather than derived directly from the needs of employers”. He suggests there is “a lack of understanding of likely employer responses” and that “a combination of targets and incentives may produce perverse outcomes”.

Plus ça change...

Which begs the question, how did we get here in the first place?

Let’s join John Denham on a trip down memory lane.

Many people believe the Leitch Report (2006) led to adult skills targets and Train to Gain. Not true.

By the time Lord Leitch started work in 2004, the government was already committed to improving the basic skills of 2.25 million people between 2001 and 2010 and reducing “by at least 40% the number of adults in the workforce who lack NVQ 2 or equivalent qualifications”.

Lord Leitch didn’t question whether these were the right measures of success: he simply said they weren’t ambitious enough. The government responded by revising their targets: by 2011, 79% of adults should be qualified at least to level 2, and 56% to level 3; by 2014, 36% should be qualified to at least level 4.

As for Train to Gain, that programme was rolled out nationally in April 2006, eight months before the Leitch Report was published.

Lord Leitch took it at face value that Train to Gain would provide flexible, demand-led training. It didn’t. Employers were told, “You can have certificates in numeracy and literacy and NVQs at levels 2 and 3 – take it or leave it”. Quite a lot said “OK – we’ll take it”, because Train to Gain didn’t cost them anything and was organised by other people.

Did it work? Well, Labour’s level 2 target was achieved in 2012 – just a year behind schedule. Better still, the level 3 and 4 targets were achieved two years early. Adult basic skills targets were also met.

Woohoo! We solved the nation’s skills crisis!

Except we didn’t. Productivity has flat-lined.

It’s increasingly clear that boosting qualification numbers won’t – on its own – transform the workforce. We need more training, more learning, more investment all round.

And to achieve that in full, we need to take account of the way people behave.

The owner-manager of a small business once told me he didn’t train anyone. Not entirely true: new starters were told what to do, shown how to do it and given pithy advice when they got it wrong. He meant he didn’t send anyone to be trained off-site, he didn’t pay trainers to come in, and no-one got a qualification while working there. He didn’t see the need. He’d rather spend his time and money on other things.

The painful truth is that many employers see training as a low priority. If offered something for nothing (or next to nothing), they’ll take it, whether it’s called Train to Gain or adult apprenticeships. Otherwise, they’ll often do the bare minimum.

Furthermore, a lot of people don’t actively seek structured training, because they, too, don’t see the need; they don’t enjoy it much, either. David Blunkett acknowledged this in “The Learning Age” (1998):

For many people this will mean overcoming past experiences which have put them off learning. For others it will mean taking the opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to recognise their own talent, to discover new ways of learning and to see new opportunities opening up.

At the end of his report, John Denham says, “The introduction of the levy provides a unique opportunity to study employer decisions in real-time in response to a huge market intervention. It is to be hoped that suitable wide ranging research studies have already been commissioned”.

A good starting point would be a short, sharp study to test reactions to the apprenticeship reforms among employers that don’t currently provide formal training. If not, we’re going to need more research into the reasons why some people don’t study and some employers don’t train – and how we can nudge them in the right direction.

David Harbourne

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