From education to employment

Why it’s time to reboot apprenticeship policy!

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies and the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show

#NationalApprenticeshipWeek – We should celebrate England’s apprentices. But it’s also time to call out policymakers for their many failings since the decade-old Richard Review, argues Tom Bewick:

Let’s begin on a really positive and celebratory note.

In the fifteen years since National Apprenticeship Week was launched (‘national’ in this context means England only), literally millions of apprentices and thousands of employers have taken the earning and learning route to organisational and lifetime success.

These apprentices have achieved mastery in occupational roles that keep our economy going, from retail to childcare; from accountancy to engineering; and from digital marketing to advanced robotics.

Today’s apprentices are the direct descendants of the medieval guilds, when we used to indenture people to create generations of blacksmiths, coopers and roof thatchers. The fact these apprenticelike trades still exist is testament to the endurance of a concept that is available to meet the nation’s contemporary skills needs. In an age of rising student debt; growing concern about the underemployment of graduates; we should celebrate the fact that every year individuals and employers choose a different path to success.

That’s what National Apprenticeship Week in England is all about. So successful, that on my journey to the United States in 2016 to advise on apprenticeship policy, I was able to enlighten the last year of the Obama administration to take up the example of England’s annual event. Both President Trump and President Biden have issued national apprenticeship week proclamations every November since. You have to wonder why the UK’s devolved administrations don’t do the same.

Because to celebrate is to recognise the real achievements of those involved. And that includes many excellent providers and end-point assessment organisations. In many ways, the undoubted success of some aspects of English apprenticeships over the past decade is more despite the wrong-footed decisions of policymakers than because of them.

Providing an annual platform to mark individual success is not the same, however, as asking the really difficult questions. These include whether, overall, the apprenticeship system is delivering on what it was set up to do. In England, the system is not working as well as it was promised when the government appointed an entrepreneur to do a major review exactly a decade ago. The Richard Review, as it became widely known, was trenchant in its criticism of the way we did things at the time.

The review pointed to low quality; sluggish take up by employers; the lack of a proper definition of apprenticeship; and the fact providers and those with a vested interest were too often marking their own homework in a kind of byzantine corruption of the system.

A decade on and we are still asking many of the same questions.

What is perhaps the most startling realisation is that the new ministerial team at Sanctuary buildings is failing to get a grip of the problem. Just as some of the high-paid heads of their own quangos try to stonewall experts and journalists in the sector, who simply ask challenging questions, they too are found wanting for not properly holding the technocrats to account for the current poor performance of England’s apprenticeship model.

And that more recent poor performance is clear to see for anyone that has closely followed the development of apprenticeship policy since the Conservative government first rebooted them in the early 1990s, with the introduction of Modern Apprenticeships.

It was then left to the Labour government (1997-2010) to really put rocket boosters under apprenticeships to create the mass system we see today.

Of course, as the Richard Review pointed out, commissioned by the coalition government (2010-2015), the dash for quantity had in some sectors come at the expense of quality.

Indeed, there will be some people reading this who may still remember the scandal of 16-week shelf-stacking apprenticeships!

In some ways we can look to the political sciences to explain why there is such a deep malaise at the moment about the future of English apprenticeships. The brutal truth is that the senior bureaucrats who designed the system post-Richard Review have killed it. On every key metric it is not living up to the high expectations put in place at the time of the London Olympics. Perhaps more worryingly, many of the same officials are still in charge.

Today, fewer companies take on apprentices. We’ve seen a catastrophic collapse of 72 per cent of the number of starts at Level 2; the very entry-level apprenticeships other countries are famous for. Drop-out rates are higher for new standards, compared to the old frameworks. The levy introduced in 2017 is clearly in trouble. And young people, in particular, have found themselves systematically frozen out of a programme that has become almost the total preserve of older workers (many of whom have already consumed a traditional degree borrowing public funds).

Meanwhile, career civil servants, particularly the ones on six figure remuneration and final salary pension schemes, simply shrug their shoulders.

As Niskanen, one of the proponents of public choice theory explains:

“Business people are exposed to the scrutiny of well-informed customers and analysts, but bureaucrats are not. The fact that bureaucrats are far more knowledgeable about their own particular area than the average politician, means that politicians cannot effectively control the bureaucracy.”[1]

In the bureaucratic world of apprenticeships, it has led to a system of quangos and agencies amassing power and resources at the expense of taxpayers and general government efficiency.

It will be interesting to see what Boris Johnson’s reboot of his own administration actually delivers in this area. In Jacob Rees-Mogg, he has appointed a minister specifically tasked with cutting back the thicket of burgeoning red tape and regulation.

One fruitful place to start would be the Institute for Apprenticeship and Technical Education, which if the current Skills Bill becomes law, will be able to introduce millions of pounds worth of additional regulations which will have to be paid for by placing higher costs on the system as a whole. Money that won’t, of course, be spent on increasing the number of high-quality apprenticeships for young people.

This week, the Federation of Awarding Bodies published a major report, detailing how the regulatory burden of Ofqual and other regulators has grown exponentially since 2014. The annual cost of dealing with vocational qualifications compliance requests alone is a staggering £6 million per annum.

All of this really matters, because too much bureaucracy stifles innovation. It costs more money and eventually undermines the very system it was set up to protect.  

The question for the politicians in charge is are they prepared to listen to these and other sector-wide concerns and finally get a grip? It’s why, in my opinion, we need another Richard-style review.

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies and the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show (currently on winter break).

[1] Public Choice – a primer by Eammon Butler, IEA (London). P. 91.

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