Apprenticeships are in the news at the moment! Both main parties clearly see them as vote winners: Cameron says he'll deliver 3 million more if he's elected, to be funded by capping benefits, and Miliband has just announced Labour will create 80000 at level 3 or above. It's nice that vocational education and training, so often under the radar and seen as lower status than academic pathways, especially for young people, is at the moment basking in the sun of positive policy attention.
Apprenticeships are the best understood element of vocational education and training (VET), the core business of the FE sector, and a vital part of our social and economic system, involving millions of people at all stages of their lives and careers, in learning so as to gain, keep, or get on in employment. Widespread and high-quality VET programmes are essential for business prosperity, innovation and capacity to change in response to rapidly-evolving business environments. And VET is not just for young people preparing for work, it potentially involves everyone in work too, whatever their role in their organisation.
Politicians at election time tend to simplify things. Of course we don't just need many more apprenticeships, they need to be high-quality as well. The Tudors recognised this in enacting the Statute of Artificers in 1563, the earliest example of state regulation of training for work, which made it illegal to practice any trade without having completed an apprenticeship of seven years, as mentioned in FE news recently.
The quality of apprenticeships is the main focus of Remaking Apprenticeships, published this week by City and Guilds. This report, written by Bill Lucas and Ellen Spencer, strongly reminds us of the importance of curriculum development and learning processes in high quality apprenticeships – the focus must not just be on specifying the knowledge required. Two years ago, The Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL) in It's About Work.... (2013) put the focus back on the role of the workplace itself, and of workplace specialists, in effective vocational training. It called for close collaboration between employers and training providers (including FE colleges and independent training providers), as an essential component of high quality and effective VET programmes. The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) is implementing the CAVTL Report's recommendations, and central to them is Teach Too, a commissioned project being delivered by the UCL Institute of Education in partnership with AELP. Teach Too's objective is to promote close ongoing collaborative working between experienced industry-based practitioners and VET providers. As CAVTL said, it is not just partnership between employers and providers that is critical, it is the nature of that partnership, and how staff in the two organisations work together in practice.
There is almost no industry now in which change, whether to adapt to new business environments, or to develop innovatory products, isn't unavoidable, rapid and endemic. The only way VET can keep pace with the needs of industry in the 21st century is through close and detailed continuous collaboration between expert practitioners in industry, and expert teachers - collaboration which produces development and innovation: of the curriculum, of teaching approaches, and of both kinds of practitioner involved. Sometimes these can be the same people: an increasing number of industry specialists are being supported by their employers to gain teaching qualifications.
This picture is even more relevant in the context of emerging industries; those with no history of training manuals, qualifications and certificates of recognition, licenses to practice, and without long-established college departments and experienced specialist vocational teachers.
The CAVTL Report implicitly rejects the old idea of highly-prescriptive, highly specified and standardised qualifications-based approach and puts the emphasis back on the local design and planning of vocational programmes, by workplace specialists and professional trainers working together. It argues that local design and autonomy can still take place within an enabling national framework using a kitemarking system.
Teach Too's strap-line is 'People from industry teaching their work', and it is supporting a range of development projects around the country in which industry specialists and professional teachers and trainers work together to design and plan programmes, and to teach and assess VET learners. It stresses that excellence in VET is not simply a matter of agreeing what needs to be taught (though of course this is important). It is not just about providing experience in the workplace as part of training (though this is important too). It is about the active process of teaching and learning through the experience of work itself.
It is about unifying training and work, rather than separating them. And Teach Too maintains that this can best be achieved by having both teachers/trainers and workplace specialists working together to plan and deliver the programme. If this feature isn't the norm in all VET programmes including apprenticeships, the aims of the City and Guilds and CAVTL reports will be difficult to achieve in practice. Supported by expert teachers, there is no better way to enrich vocational training programmes, including apprenticeships. Industry practitioners need to see themselves, in some degree, as teachers: people with experience and expertise which they can pass on to the next generation of specialists in their field, with the support of professional educators and trainers.
The Teach Too approach benefits both employers and VET providers by developing and broadening the expertise of their staff, but also produces new recruits who are better prepared, not just for employment but for a career in their chosen occupation.
This 'back to basics' idea is implicit in other recent proposals for improving vocational education and training programmes, including the Richard Review (2012), Catch 16-24 (UKCES 2015), and the Husbands Review of Vocational Education and Training (2014). Plans to expand the number of apprenticeship places are extremely welcome – but let's make sure they all feature 'People from industry teaching their work' – with collaborative support from specialist teachers and trainers.
Jay Derrick is director of Teach Too, which aims to improve vocational learning by supporting occupational experts to become involved in teaching their expertise