From education to employment

Let’s Rethink Apprenticeships

Heather Akehurst, Chief Executive, Open Awards

As we face the real prospect of another new Education Minister next month we must wonder where Apprenticeships will sit and under whose watch. We do know that Rishi Sunak will not be returning as Chancellor and under his time in that office he took a keen interest in Apprenticeships often quietly intervening during the pandemic to ensure he fully understood the issues. With a new Minister will likely come more change – and so what could that change look like.

Apprenticeships have enjoyed a chequered history in our consciousness. My first introduction was through Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and of course – Half A Sixpence. 1964 brought great change with the Industry Training Boards established to tackle skills shortages in sectors (sound familiar?) and the formalisation of vocational training routes and the 1970s saw a golden era but as the UK’s manufacturing base declined in the 1980s so did apprenticeships. In 1994 Modern Apprenticeships came into force – the very title designed to convey new confidence and greatly supported by another Chancellor, Gordon Brown. In 2013 the Trailblazers were born – employers at the heart of designing apprenticeships – but are they? 

Is it time for a further refresh to look at what’s working and what still needs to change?

Let’s look at the Levy first. Clearly designed to encourage employers to critically evaluate their recruitment and upskilling – maybe even morally to take account of declining skill set and maintain adult retraining. With 3.3 billion transferred back to the Treasury you have to wonder if it’s the influencing policy it was envisaged to be. Cynics amongst us may wonder if it’s a tax on large business by stealth. So let’s be more creative – let Devolved areas have their levy pot or at the very least the unspent portions of it. Set boundaries that it must be spent on tackling low skills including adult numeracy and literacy or those in demand in those areas. For areas without Devolved budgets use the Local Enterprise Partnerships – it would be good to see them used for driving local skills needs, whilst still having that critical employer input.

Let’s ask local areas to offer ‘flexed’ apprentices in certain sectors such as creative and technology moving between employers to gain the breadth of experience and skills necessary – and including entrepreneurship within the Standard to support the future self-employed and improving the potential success for new business start-ups. An overarching impartial broker that keeps the apprentices engaged and moving at the right time, adding value for the apprentices and small/micro business.

Let’s also take a fresh look at Trailblazers

No one would argue that employers are best placed to articulate their skills needs but are they always best placed to set out how to meet them; should we even expect them to know ‘how to’. If they did arguably we wouldn’t have skills shortages? (an exaggeration I admit). Time after time surveys of employers will tell you they value soft skills or transferable skills above academia and time after time employers will recruit for 5 GCSEs! Plus how many of those Trailblazers exist in a meaningful way – meeting regularly  and horizon scanning as well as including and reflecting the needs of all employers within a sector including start-ups, SMEs and social enterprises. It’s a huge task and yet by placing employers at the centre of our vocational skills (Apprenticeships, Technical Levels etc) we need a huge but consistent direction. It’s almost as if those Sector Skills Councils are being missed.

So why not broaden the scope of the Trailblazers. If I’m commissioning a long-term project that is fundamental to the future success of Open Awards then I want the best people in the room I can get with a diverse range of expertise so let’s proactively allow stakeholder Awarding Organisations and even End Point Assessment Organisations to sit as advisers and give the benefit of their experience and skills. An open house for ideas, rather than a closed group for questions.

Let’s look at leveraging Public sector procurement to drive-up high quality apprenticeships. For many, many years organisations have included in their Tenders promises to employ local staff including young people – well let’s enshrine that within the public procurement process and contract management it properly. For each set £ range set a target of apprenticeships to be created and ringfence a % of apprenticeships for young people entering employment with set standards for retention and achievement rates.

Let’s also look at the qualification element – and I have to accept I may have lost this argument several years ago but I still firmly believe all apprenticeships should have a formal qualification embedded within it. It gives structure to the programme and ensures that apprentices can achieve not only their completion certificate but valuable qualification currency. It helps to ensure those Functional Skills are used and built upon and offers a real chance for people for whom GCSEs were not attainable. However, let’s go further and look at where the qualification sits within the programme.

It’s final achievement should be within Gateway – there are too many excellent training providers with low apprenticeship achievement rates, particularly within Early Years and hospitality who see apprentices gain their qualification and move on. Perhaps this also shows that apprentices are valuing the qualification more than the completion certificate. It’s not beyond the wit of AOs and EPAOs to co-design Gateway processes to embed the final elements of the qualification, if this option is available. Truthfully, it’s unrealistic to believe that regulating and treating an apprenticeship as a qualification will inevitably enshrine parity of perception amongst apprentices and the wider public.

Let’s do more on Functional Skills

Adult numeracy and literacy rates remain shockingly immoveable and yet we continue to argue whether Functional Skills should be included in Apprenticeships and Technical Levels. This government proposes to stop people entering University without GCSEs in English and Mathematics (or equivalencies) so why would we deepen the diversion between vocational and academic pathways. Do we not  want many of our young people to begin their journey on an Apprenticeship but have the opportunity to progress to Degree Apprenticeship levels. We don’t necessarily need to get fixated on the Functional Skills level – depending on the Apprenticeship but at the very least achievement at Entry Level or Level 1 Functional Skills is an English or Mathematics qualification.

Let’s get serious on the data. We need to understand where recruitment is coming from and particularly at what stages does retention drop off and importantly why. Are there geographical differences? What levels of academic attainment do apprentices have at the start of their journey? However, we need this by Standard and certainly this is where Trailblazers used effectively could be key to move away from a data dumping and onto drilling down to provide the answers.

Let’s have more Level 2 Standards. It’s always been crazy that these haven’t been rolled out.Ignore the argument that the level follows the occupation.  They’re good for employers looking for a long-term investment or just to see if someone is a fit for their organisation or vocation. Excellent for young people and adult returners as they build confidence and allow for a specific work trial over a reasonable period of time plus for some people they offer perhaps their only opportunity to move into employment.

Finally let’s set movement into apprenticeships as a valued aspiration for schools (including private schools) and other under 16 provision. It’s time that some establishments recognised the depth of provision and opportunities they can bring. We need investment into better understanding by schools, careers advisers, young people, parents, carers and importantly employers. We saw the success of the KickStart scheme – it’s that innovation that’s needed.

By Heather Akehurst, Chief Executive, Open Awards

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