Janet Clark, ATL Education Policy Adviser

A consultation on the Institute of Apprenticeships (IfA) strategic plan closed last week. You can read ATL’s response to the proposals here. Another consultation, this time on the IfA’s draft operational plan, is currently open, with a deadline of 27 February.

The strategic plan sets out the remit of the IfA, which is to:

  • Set quality criteria for the development of apprenticeship standards and assessment plans;
  • Review and approve or reject apprenticeship standards and assessment plans;
  • Ensure all end-point assessments are quality assured and
  • Advise on the maximum level of Government funding available for standards.

The operational plan describes how the organisation will go about its work and includes proposals for the support that the IfA will offer employers and Trailblazers. In anticipation of its remit being expanded to include classroom-based technical education from 2018, this document also sets out how the IfA will implement the Skills Plan.

Reading through the consultation documents, I am struck by the number of times the word ‘employer’ is mentioned. In fact, the count for ‘employer’ is 30 in the 13-page draft strategic guidance, and a whopping 139 times in the 42-page proposed operational plan. Within the strategic guidance, a section is dedicated to why ‘Putting Employers at the Centre of Apprenticeship Quality’ is necessary and how this will happen through the IfA. Meanwhile, the operational plan explains how the IfA is an “employer-led regulator, led by a Board, made up primarily of employers “enshrining the ‘employer-led’ nature of apprenticeship reforms”.

Similarly, when it comes to designing new apprenticeship standards, this is carried out by employer-led trailblazer groups. And the new technical education employer panels will also design “the content of all publicly funded college-based technical education courses at level 2-5 and ensure it is in line with employer need”. On reviewing these documents, the reader is left in no doubt that the Government has heeded the advice of the 2012 Richard Review of English Apprenticeships that “the relationship between an employer and an apprentice must once again rise to the fore”. However, while the Richard Review is frequently cited by the Government to justify the dominance of employers in skills reform, much of this 2012 scrutiny of apprenticeships now seems to have been forgotten.

In his Review, Doug Richard states that he believes “particularly strongly in our Further Education Colleges…our best colleges are world leaders and are innovating in the delivery of apprenticeships.”

In contrast to employers however, the further education workforce, or indeed colleges (with the exception of the new National Colleges), are not mentioned once in either the draft strategic or operational plans for the IfA. Although there is some concession to the sector, with the appointment of two college principals to the IfA Board, they are very much in the minority of this ‘employer-led’ body.

By ignoring Richards’ regard for the FE sector, in addition to college teachers and lecturers who have decades of experience of delivering apprenticeship learning, in collaboration with employers, I believe the Government is playing a risky game.

Without official input into the IfA, the skills, knowledge and insights of the FE workforce will not be considered in the design of apprenticeship standards and assessments, except for where this is deemed necessary by the few enlightened employers leading trailblazer groups. Furthermore, as the AELP rightly points out in its response to the consultation on the IfA’s draft strategic guidance, engaging a wider range of stakeholders, other than employers, is vital to ensure the credibility of the ‘apprenticeships brand’. Furthermore, lessons must be learned from the Area Reviews.

My article in November explained how FE teachers’ and lecturers’ felt excluded from the Area Review process, leaving the workforce feeling side-lined, demoralised and anxious. Being shut out from the reform of apprenticeships and technical education will only make this situation worse.

Few would disagree with the need for employers to be more engaged with skills education and training. But are reforms losing out on a breadth of expertise by prioritising employer-led design and regulation at the expense of the involvement of those who have worked tirelessly with learners in the sector?

Janet Clark, ATL Education Policy Adviser

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