From education to employment

Reform that works for everyone

Another week, another change to the Apprenticeship system. Last week we heard Matthew Hancock deliver the punchy news that Apprenticeships are on track to deliver two million places by 2017. I wonder where these apprentices are coming from when many employers we work with say they’ll be forced to cut places if increased burden is shifted to them.

Leaving aside the figures for a moment, I was more disheartened to read about the proposed changes to grading and assessment. I would be the first to agree with the Government that there is a need to improve quality across many Apprenticeships and making changes to grading and assessment is one way this could happen. Indeed, I know that employers’ reaction to the idea of swapping pass/fail in Apprenticeships for grades has been in part positive. They would like as many measures as possible to be able to identify excellent apprentices. What is not clear is how businesses would cope with the increased burden of grading in a system that is soon to be delivered by them.

The news of grading also came with a more alarming announcement that the Government would like to see the majority of focus shifted to end of Apprenticeship assessment. This seems odd when an Apprenticeship is a practical qualification, designed to give someone the technical skills needed to directly enter the workplace. Surely that achievement is measured by progression throughout the apprenticeship, rather than with a written paper at the end of it? We seem to have lost our way in remembering that Apprenticeships aren’t about the numbers and adding up how many apprentices you can get qualified in the shortest space of time but fundamentally they are about the quality and the richness of the training you receive along the way.

The other question I have is around employers’ resources to manage apprenticeships at all, let alone a more complex programme. Sure, there are large employers out there who are well set up to deliver Apprenticeships, although whether they will be so happy to invest more money into the system remains to be seen. But what happens to the small and medium sized employers who struggle with the complexity of the system as it is? How will they cope without a training provider to the deal with the administration? And how will the businesses manage a more complex grading system without the existing external support from qualifications providers?

I wholeheartedly believe that employers should have more say in the education system and, if they want it, more ownership of skills delivery. I also strongly believe that for Apprenticeships to ever gain the recognition they deserve as a great route into work and higher education they need to be of a sufficiently high quality to appeal to the brightest and best of our young people. Anything we can do to genuinely improve quality is positive in my book.
However, let’s not continue to make one-size-fits-all changes that won’t work for everyone and certainly won’t help to achieve that two million figure. I would rather see flexibility in the system and the right support for employers to give apprentices the best training and skills development possible.

Kirstie Donnelly is UK managing director of City & Guilds Group, the awarding body

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