Charlotte Bosworth, director of skills and employment at awarding body OCR, looks back at 2014 and considers the activity that has been ongoing to re-invigorate the role of apprenticeships, but sees much still left to be done in 2015 and beyond.

The topic of apprenticeships has remained highly visible throughout 2014. With the main political parties jostling for position ahead of next year's general election, it is clear from the raft of pledges, initiatives and targets that have hit the headlines apprenticeships, and vocational training, remains a hot topic.

A look back over 2014 reveals there has been much debate, and many interesting proposals, to support the retention of apprenticeships as a key component in enabling young people to secure fulfilling and rewarding employment.

The political spotlight

The political spotlight on apprenticeships and training is growing brighter as each month passes. This year, David Cameron said a future Conservative government would fund 3 million apprentice places in an effort to tackle youth unemployment. Ed Miliband stated that he wanted to see the same number of school leavers take an apprenticeship route as those choosing university educations. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, shared plans to boost pay for thousands of apprentices via a single national minimum wage.

In summary, there was little to differentiate the political parties over skills policy, with each one in its own way articulating broadly similar views on apprenticeships, higher quality 16-18 education and a greater focus on higher-level skills. Another common factor was the lack of specific detail from each party about how their ambitious plans would be rolled out, how they would target the employer marketplace, and how plans would be funded.

The employer market

A number of apprenticeship-related ideas targeting the business community were announced throughout 2014. They included proposals to allow greater employer choice on how available funding for training could be used; cash incentives to support the adoption of a more proactive approach to delivering apprentice places, and an increased focus on the delivery of additional and essential core skills such as English and maths. There was also an announcement of increased funding to support the specific needs of higher apprenticeships and provide the opportunity to develop professional skills up to Degree and Masters levels.

As an overview they combine as a worthy and well-intentioned set of proposals to drive the apprenticeship agenda forward. But at the core of any apprenticeship revival is the realisation that success will only come about if it is created in partnership. Businesses, both large and small, need to buy into the concept and this means organisations need to invest effort into getting their schemes right, in order to ultimately reap benefits down the line.

The creation of robust and agreed general standards is important, but also vital is the creation of valid and reliable assessment to meet the needs of the employer and the apprentice. It is essential, therefore, that we rely on the relative strengths of each of the players in the system to deliver the best possible outcome.

Employer participation in apprenticeship schemes will ultimately hinge on three key elements. First, that there is a clear understanding of what the employer community requires from apprenticeships. Secondly, there must be consistent communication concerning the funding route to support apprenticeships, and, finally, whether or not employers can see a return on investment for the time, effort and expense they will be expected to contribute.

Clearer signposting

Confusion around the roles of apprenticeships and traineeships has remained this year with little done to differentiate their respective purposes for the key target audiences. Apprenticeships are jobs with training, while traineeships are generally for young people with little or no work experience that need more support, training and experience of work in order to secure employment. Traineeships are not solely pre-apprenticeships and should be viewed by all as a route to further training, self-employment or apprenticeships. Much work remains to be done to ensure this is more clearly understood.

Good practice in action

OCR has continued to play its part in driving the link between education, vocational training and the workplace over the past twelve months. A prime example has been our partnership with global engineering giant, Siemens. Together, we have developed education resources for 14-16 year olds designed to deliver a curriculum in schools that will increase the skills of prospective engineers. It will hopefully help to inspire the next generation of engineers and provide the starting point for boys and girls to embark on what is a stimulating, wide-ranging and rewarding career.

Finally, as the year draws to a close and thoughts turn towards 2015, I was delighted to be recently invited, on behalf of OCR, to give evidence to the Education Select Committee's ongoing enquiry into the support, regulation and management of traineeship and apprenticeship pathways in the UK. Based upon our extensive and ongoing work in this area, I was able to share some of our organisation's key recommendations. They include making traineeships more flexible through the creation of 'bite-sized' units whilst also providing funding for progression; the promotion of traineeships within the school environment; the involvement of Local Enterprise Partnerships as strategies are built to encourage traineeships locally; the need for the urgent availability of clear, concise and high-quality information to help young people better understand the choices before them, and a proposal to incentivise employers to ensure the number of traineeships on offer increases.

With some evidence in recent months of government starting to listen to the feedback of employers and the sector, I am encouraged by the progress we have seen during 2014. Everyone at OCR looks forward to contributing during 2015 at both strategic planning and practical delivery level to ensure we all ultimately benefit from enhanced, reinvigorated and fit-for-purpose apprenticeship and traineeship schemes.

Charlotte Bosworth is director for skills and employment at OCR, the awarding body

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