The clock is ticking

By anyone’s standards apprenticeship reform will be profound and dramatic. It has been a hot topic for those involved in it but for those outside these circles little is known about what is going on. Even businesses who will have to pay a levy based on the value of their payroll, still seem oblivious to what is coming down the line. That said, there have been a number of large firms that have been involved in collaborating with other firms in their industry to develop new apprenticeship standards.

Depending on how much the reform affects an organisation, very much depends on which side of the fence you’re on, the ‘pro’ reform camp or ‘against’. But as in any change programme there are winners and losers and if you’re in the latter camp, which many FE colleges are, how you’re going to transition, adapt and grow with the change will be all important.

Colleges will be facing two key challenges; first how they access funding, because this is now under the control of 22,000 or so business employers and secondly, employment of teaching skills with the appropriate industry experience and qualifications to deliver the new programmes.

The government’s aim is to get skills in sync with employment – this is the concept but without the detail. In the driving seat is the employer. A good apprenticeship will offer a blend of study and work-based learning. This is clearly a big change for colleges. Employers are the ones who will have access to funding along with the choice of how they want to spend it. They will be the apprenticeship kings. The new apprenticeship standards are occupation specific and employer-led i.e. apprentice matched to employer.

The raising of frameworks into higher level standards is going to have a big impact on the educational workforce. Under the old apprenticeship frameworks, it wasn’t mandatory to have a degree, or industry experience or a formal teaching qualification to teach, or to assess an apprentice. All that will change.

The new standards put more stringent requirements on the educational workforce. Teaching staff are now required to have industry qualifications and experience of the subject that they are teaching. The same goes for teaching and end point assessment. In addition to this they must have functional skills as part of the course as every standard must show a development for English and Maths, although functional skills can be delivered by a specialist in that element.

Under the old frameworks, colleges were more flexible around having recent industry experience, so this new requirement is a big wake-up call in finding teaching staff with the appropriate backgrounds. So much so that when the new standards start rolling out after April 2017 there will be significant shortages of educational staff and assessors in specialist subjects.

FE colleges will continue to cater for 16-18 under nationally funded education, so this element of their provision is protected, but vocational adult education is set to change radically with an apprentice now able to study through to level 7, the equivalent of a Masters degree.

Out goes the notion that only the young can be an apprentice. Apprenticeship will be open to all age groups. So the young will compete with their older peers. Apprenticeship education is now available to all ages and throws the doors wide open to more opportunities for more people; for those who want to start a new career or for re-training within a current employer. It allows easier economic passage into a field of study that an employee might previously have been excluded from, and for businesses to seriously consider, maybe for the first time, taking on the risk of a newbie.

Furthermore, colleges will need to foster relationships with businesses and this means having people who are skilled at performing a business development function. This fundamental change with colleges needing to be more employer focussed and proactive in terms of business engagement, is something the sector has had mixed results with in the past. The market for apprenticeships will be competitive as colleges battle with training providers for apprenticeship money and those crucial partnerships.

Colleges will also need to collaborate with each other on what areas they will specialise in, crafting their business strategies around their strengths and weaknesses, and their partnership deals. The larger private sector training providers, have traditionally had more success on the business engagement cycle, particularly with private sector employers. The warning by the former Skills Minister, Nick Boles, in November 2015, that they should beware of training providers ‘stealing their lunch money’, still rings true as a warning to the traditional FE college sector.

All this is a step change in how colleges operate. The transition will be tricky, the government has said that it will stagger the withdrawal of public funding for new starts on framework apprenticeships as employers take on apprentices on the new standards.

Good old fashioned economic principles of supply and demand in jobs and skills will be the final arbiter on what will be the most popular apprenticeship standards. And the educational workforce will need to be in place to deliver these.  

The truth is that it will probably take another year or two for students to fully understand that apprenticeship is the new and superior higher education; for colleges to make the transition to the higher standards and juggle their funds, and for employers to understand their objectives and what they want from their apprenticeships. But what is clear is that the clock is ticking for all sides to make this happen including the recruiters who will be actively bringing on board new talent. 

Chris Wimshurst, Board Director – Education South, Morgan Hunt

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