We start 2015 with welcome news for all of those involved in Apprenticeships, whether you are an employer of apprentices, a provider, an apprentice or other interested stakeholder.
Sense has at last prevailed with what we would call brave announcements from Nick Boles. We applaud the minister for listening and clearly looking at the proposals and recognising their flaws – more than could be said for Mr Hancock and some of the BIS Civil Servants who were ploughing on regardless of expert observation.
So what does it all mean – and what would we want to see or envisage happening in the future?
Well first of all, despite some of the headlines, recruitment of young apprentices is actually holding up and increasing if all the short Apprenticeships that have now disappeared are stripped out.
Stability, this side of an election and beyond, will provide us all with a stimulus to drive forward more engagement with employers. The model isn't broke and doesn't need fixing as most companies agree but there are always tweaks required to make the engine sing more sweetly. The reforms of frameworks, whilst not being as radical as some are portraying, is welcome – and only time will tell what is set up to police all new Trailblazers and frameworks in the next few years – let's hope something that is fleet of foot and not another civil service run quango.
We really look forward to the report of the Select Committee on 16-19. Whilst having no 'inside track', the body language would seem to indicate that they will be warning that employers making cash payments whilst at the same time aiming to drive up Apprenticeship numbers is fraught with danger. Surely, the focus must be on increasing the living wage of apprentices to a more appropriate (and higher!) level – and employer will be making their contributions in this direction.
It was also enlightening to hear the committee extoll the contribution that SMEs deliver to the Apprenticeship agenda and recognising that future growth will come from them, not the multinationals. Having just this week spent eight hours in the car for a 30 minute meeting with a large employer, it would be good to see funding focussed to the SME community!
So what will happen? a voucher scheme is most likely with the providers remaining at the heart of any reforms – hurrah I hear you say – employers have always had a choice; if they are unhappy with service delivery, they move elsewhere to another provider – luckily it happens all the time with us as providers continue to deliver poor service. The voucher will simply make this slightly more transparent with them taking their vouchers to any 'accredited provider'. I suspect there won't be as much change as the politicians envisage as the system actually does work with most providers, particularly those in the independent sector delivering high quality, responsive Apprenticeships – the OFSTED results tell us this – contrasting with the FE community.
The key for us will be the definition of 'accredited providers' or whatever other term may be used and, leading from this, who will be able to deliver? If it's the same as traineeships and grade 2 is the benchmark, there will be many existing providers (including colleges) out of the market – a good thing we would claim but I am sure this will be a topic of hot debate over the next few months and years. But quality will be at the core of Apprenticeship reforms, whatever colour our new political leadership will look like post May, so look for a tightening of those who can deliver.
You cannot get away from the increasingly tightening financial climate, and with the 'merger' of EFA and SFA likely, a single budget for Apprenticeships may emerge.
So what may make sense going forward; aligning funding of 16-19 to 16-21, increasing large employer discounts to allocate to SMEs, reviewing funding for level iii and iv to encourage take up and progression and, most importantly, the introduction of destination funding for EFA funding for college provision.
All of this will bring welcomed behavioural changes as we enter 2015/16 and beyond. It may be a little controversial to some but the key priority of any government, whatever colour, is to increase the volumes of quality Apprenticeships in the 16-19 age group, increase the focus on higher level Apprenticeships and give greater support to SMEs to engage in the whole Apprenticeship arena.
Happy New Year to you all and congratulations Mr Boles
Peter Marples and Di McEvoy-Robinson are co-owners of Aspire Achieve Advance, a grade 1 OFSTED provider