From education to employment

NFER research on apprenticeship reforms confirms quality worries

One of the biggest frustrations that AELP has had to endure when presenting evidence to the government on the various apprenticeship reform proposals over the past four years has been the regular refrain of ‘They’re providers, so they would say that, wouldn’t they’. There has often been a refusal to accept that our members regularly engage with over 300,000 employers and all that they are doing is simply feeding back what their employer customers are telling them.

Since the apprenticeship levy was announced in the autumn of last year, those conversations between employers and providers have intensified and my inbox has become well populated with their outcomes. Therefore it was encouraging to learn that independent research charity the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) was willing to undertake some qualitative research ( with providers to identify the key issues emerging from discussions with employers.

Fifteen in-depth interviews took place between the researchers and a varied group of provider leaders during the period of August to October, when the fourth and probably final government consultation was running on the apprenticeship reforms. So the research results are essentially up to date – the only notable new information since the interviews were conducted being that providers now know what the funding caps are going to be for the various standards and frameworks.

The first main theme to be identified in the research was concern among the providers interviewed about the lateness of major government policy decisions as the clock ticks towards the April 2017 start of the levy. The August consultation documents had presented a set of funding rates which would make apprenticeships in some sectors unviable, especially in relation to the 16 to 18 age group and current frameworks. The participating providers told NFER that they were particularly concerned that an absence of approved standards would prevent a simple switching over from an unviable framework, which is what ministers were seeking. So while we were lobbying to rectify the potential damage, there was an understandably anxious wait before employers and providers could press ahead with their planning. At the end of October the government restored much of the funding it had cut, but not for every sector, so time pressures remain a major challenge to being completely ready.

The lack of important information hasn’t just been a problem for providers seeking to support their existing employers. The research also found that it was difficult for respondents to pitch to win new employer clients without the basic knowledge of how much they could potentially charge for delivering the training, which will, wrongly in our view, be subject to negotiation between the employer and provider. This doesn’t mean that no business development marketing has been going on. Far from it. Many levy-paying employers have received plenty of approaches from providers and they are very unlikely to be using the digital account service to choose a provider – their choice will have already been made by January if it hasn’t already. But there is no doubt that the current level of fresh employer engagement has been restricted to some degree by the lack of available key information.

The NFER research also highlights provider concerns about the development of new standards, which has now been raised with two select committees in the House of Commons. For example, the providers that spoke with NFER reported that the content of some standards was too narrowly focused on meeting the needs of the employers who had led the respective trailblazer, rather being of value to the wider sector. Another issue providers raised is the absence of a recognised qualification within certain standards and

AELP will be pressing the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to review this.

Approved standards are supposed to have a proper end-point assessment process to accompany them but, as has been well reported, some are lacking this even though apprentices are already being trained under them. This research has added to concerns that the strong emphasis on end-point assessment could encourage ‘training to the test’, so the combination of broad standards, weak assurance of end-point assessments, and negotiated pricing with employers could all combine to negatively impact on overall quality in a serious way.

The build-up to the levy’s introduction is being supported by large government marketing campaigns to further raise awareness about apprenticeships among employers and young people. In the past, these campaigns haven’t always matched the resulting raised expectations to the resources available to meet them. One TV campaign in the early days of the Learning and Skills Council even featured professional footballers which resulted with LSC staff being inundated with calls from parents asking how apprenticeships could turn their sons into Premier League stars. The providers involved in this study expressed worries to the NFER researchers that increased demand from young people this time might not be met on the supply side. This could manifest itself in two ways: firstly the number of apprenticeship opportunities that currently engaged employers offer might decrease; and secondly providers themselves might scale back provision because of funding pressures.

To summarise the research’s main findings, the providers interviewed need clarity and more detail to help them and their employers to strategically plan their future apprenticeship provision. The government’s October announcements may have given them enough but this research suggests how significant the gaps in required knowledge were at such a critical juncture of the reform process.

Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers

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