Two new reports this week, from IPPR and Policy Exchange, look at how to ensure a world class Apprenticeship system. At the Learning and Work Institute, we agree that a much greater focus on quality is needed to ensure that 3 million Apprenticeships are the start of 3 million careers.

The starting point is well set out by IPPR: that we manage the transition into work and on to intermediate level learning and above particularly poorly for many young people. For example, only 39% of young people studying a Level 2 at age 17, then go on to a Level 3. There is a well established route that runs from GCSE at 16, A Level at age 18, and then university. But only a minority of young people take this route, despite the primary focus on it in the media, and alternative routeways are ill-defined and often work sporadically. This locks in disadvantage and limits social mobility.

The good news is that a lot of attention is now focused on this issue. The bad news is that a low of attention is focused on this issue: constant 'reform' has bedevilled much of the learning and skills system. There are two key planks to the Governments plan: the Skills Plan to create 15 routes across technical education; and a commitment to 3 million Apprenticeships by 2020.

My focus today, and the focus of the IPPR and Policy Exchange reports, is on Apprenticeships. And in particular on the quality and content of Apprenticeships, as opposed to the funding mechanism and the operation of the Apprenticeship Levy (though clearly these interact, and Learning and Work Institute set out our thoughts on the Levy here).

Quantity at the expense of quality?

We have long been concerned about quality. Apprenticeships are only of value if they represent a genuine improvement in people's skills and are a job with substantial training. Here, there is a stark contrast with Germany. The amount of off-the-job training required is not too dissimilar. England's requirement for 20% time off-the-job training equates to around 400 hours over a one year Apprenticeship, compared to 360 taught hours in a two-year A Level and 600 hours in a two year Apprenticeship in Germany.

However, Policy Exchange and IPPR both point out that the depth and breadth of content in Apprenticeships in England has tended to be much more job-specific than in countries such as Germany. England also, as OECD data shows, has a poorer base on English and Maths skills. So the catch up required in these basic skills is greater here.

This links to a challenge identified by Policy Exchange in the current reforms: that end point assessment (how someone is judged to have succeeded or otherwise at the end of their Apprenticeship) is somewhat mixed across the new standards being developed by employers; and that the new system of assessment organisations is not yet fully formed at best (it's completely unacceptable that some apprentices are currently undertaking Apprenticeships without an assessment organisation in place).

So it seems there's a fair degree of consensus on the challenge: Apprenticeships are a widely recognised brand; it's right to expand them to provide a more structured route; there's some great Apprenticeships and employer engagement; but the system of ensuring that quality matches the best in the world is not yet adequate; and without this there's a risk we will deliver 3 million Apprenticeships, but this won't fully benefit people, employers and our economy.

Where next?

The divergence comes in what to do about this. IPPR call for a new pre-Apprenticeship programme to replace Level 2 Apprenticeships for 16-17 year olds, with greater off-the-job training a recognisable qualification matching the pathways in the Skills Plan. I'm not sure this is a full enough answer. For one thing, Apprenticeships are an established brand. For another, we had pre-Apprenticeships and programme-led Apprenticeships previously. And we have Traineeships now – it's a fair question to ask whether they're meeting the need identified. But more fundamentally, if the challenge is the amount and quality of training, surely that applies to all Apprenticeships for all age groups?

In my view, Policy Exchange is closer to the answer. They talk about benchmarking apprenticeships with the best in the world: looking at wage, employment and productivity gains; benchmarking breadth and depth with other countries etc. They also recommend a clearer, fully independent process for developing new apprenticeship standards, mapped against this world-leading ambition and overseen by the forthcoming Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

That said, at Learning and Work Institute we think there is more that needs to be done. There is an issue with awareness of Apprenticeships and ensuring they feature properly in careers advice. Quality is also about more than the training received: that's why Learning and Work Institute have called for an Apprentice Charter to reflect the apprentices broader experience, as well as employment and earnings outcomes when someone completes an Apprenticeship. And there's more to learning and workforce development than Apprenticeships: both we and Policy Exchange have called for a new system of Personal Learning Accounts invested in by individuals, employers and the Government.

The Government's commitment to expanding Apprenticeships is welcome. They have also put in place a number of building blocks to ensure the system is underpinned by quality. But it's right that a light is shone on the need to have the same focus on quality as we do on the 3 million target. Our ambition should be a world class Apprenticeship system. 

Stephen Evans, CEO at Learning and Work Institute

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