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thumbnail richard review fullWhen Doug Richard revealed the findings of his review, he said; ‘No matter who I speak to, everyone agrees that apprenticeships are a good thing’. Five years on, and we’re seeing even more people both inside and out of the sector developing an understanding of the value of apprenticeships, and their role in helping fill the UK’s critical skills gap and improve the UK’s productivity.

However, there’s a sense from those within the further education sector that the past five years have gone extremely quickly. And indeed, five years isn’t long to adapt to the new apprenticeships order. But with the sobering figures released by DfE last week, it’s clear that the Richard Review, our Government’s interpretation of it, and all the collective work that came after it, is starting to have a considerable impact– whether we’re ready for it or not.

On any project, it’s useful to take stock and look at where we’ve got to and why. Whilst at ILM we’ve been looking at the Richard Review through the lens of leadership and management, whatever your sector or interest area we’ve by and large been through the same process over the last five years; and we’ve seen Government, employers, providers, professional bodies and assessment organisations all coming together to form a single eco-system. No matter what comes next, this is undoubtedly the way we should work in future.

I’ve summarised a few thoughts on how far we’ve managed to uphold the spirit of some aspects of the review with its focus on outcomes and industry-led models, what sort of headway there has been to embrace the innovation apprenticeships undoubtedly need, and whether – so far – their promotion is doing the trick.

“Focusing on the outcome”

Richard’s overall sense was that apprenticeships had become too bulky, with all the focus on achieving a multitude of qualifications, and too many optional units and pathways leaving employers unclear over what skills an apprentice had actually gained. In particular, he felt that employers were too far removed from the development process, and unable to effect change in areas that really needed it. He felt that by reducing complexity in the on-programme element of apprenticeships they would be infinitely more attractive to employers, who would get the readily adaptable model they wanted.

The government’s interpretation of this is manifested in the new standards being developed by employer groups, designed to make sure that apprentices reach an agreed benchmark. The result, theoretically, should be an apprentice well-equipped for the future, both for their own personal success and that of UK plc.

Is it working?

The new standards do provide much more opportunity for flexibility, however it’s difficult to build a 3 or 4 year curriculum from two sides of A4. Without even a template for delivery, some assessment plans are much better than others, leaving employers, providers and learners exposed when it comes to End Point Assessment. If the EPA Assessor interprets elements of a minimalist standard differently to the provider – which I’m certain will happen in many cases – apprentices will fail.

There is definitely a need to find the middle ground; whilst keeping a keen eye on the outcome is essential, we should not lose sight of the importance of the journey. Qualifications designed by organisations with the pedigree and capacity to design the content and structure of delivery are ideally placed to help fill any gaps, as well as being a cost-effective and proven method of assessment. For these reasons, I don’t think the intention was ever that they should cease to exist, and that there is more that can be done to help employers realise the value of using qualifications.

“The testing and validation process should be independent and genuinely respected by industry”

Richard’s concern was that employers didn’t really have a benchmark to use when assessing whether a newly trained apprentice was qualified for a role in their organisation; this formed the basis of a new approach to testing at the final stage of an apprenticeship. This idea brings us back to the concept of a ‘masterpiece’; the final piece of work signalling the transition from apprentice to master. Indeed, it is the type of validation that takes place at the culmination of other forms of qualification; a holistic assessment that encapsulates a full programme of learning and an ability to demonstrate how it can be applied.

How this has been translated in practice is in the creation of End Point Assessment, or EPA.

Is it working?

The risk is that it is a fundamentally different approach to anything that has gone before, and it is understandable that the training providers I speak to are more worried than anybody; achievement rates and reputation are at stake, and it remains to be seen how effective the process and infrastructure will be.

Another significant concern is that of regulation. Richard proposed a single regulator, with a government body or the like to oversee End Point Assessment – but we have ended up with four options for external quality assurance of EPA, which seems somewhat counter intuitive to the concept of standardisation. Furthermore, most Trailblazer groups continue to opt for the Institute for Apprenticeships to carry out this role – despite them declaring that they are the ‘option of last resort’.

Whilst a laudable ambition, i.e. to have an assessment plan that is designed and respected by industry, we should expect some teething problems. EPA organisations, regulators and training providers will need to constantly communicate to ensure that any ambiguities are anticipated and ironed out. We should also balance flexibility with rigour in our early assessment decisions so as not to disadvantage the first cohorts of apprentices.

I personally welcome the introduction of EPA but it is the linchpin of the reforms – we simply must get it right.

“Innovation, diversity and real choice is critical”

Opening up the standards brings a myriad of benefits, not only in hauling apprenticeships firmly into the 21st century and helping them move away from an outdated image, but also in making it far more likely that employers will see the benefits and opportunities that apprentices can offer them. By developing their own apprenticeship programmes, they can pick and choose the way that their employees learn and the ways they demonstrate it. This will help them to focus their minds on what skills they need in their organisation and the best way to get them, ultimately helping close the widespread skills gap.

Is it happening?

This is an area that, certainly at ILM, we’ve really embraced, and has given us the opportunity to develop bespoke digital solutions for delivery of our apprenticeship services. With the removal of a prescriptive on-programme curriculum, employers, training providers and awarding bodies now have the freedom to develop innovative solutions for apprenticeships, all within a standardised framework for the apprenticeship in question.

“Learners and employers need access to good quality information”…and the new apprenticeship model should be actively promoted

To an extent, this recommendation has been smashed out the park. The new apprenticeships are pretty much all anyone in education is talking about. People are starting to say the right things; employers and providers are putting information on the online Apprenticeship Service, and the Government is making an effort to reach those that influence students – schools, parents, news sources.

Is it happening?

There remains a startling absence of information for small businesses, and still somewhat of a stigma and a sense of confusion about what the new standards will really achieve. But stakeholders in the industry are drawing attention to this issue, so the hope is that sooner or later the powers that be will find a way to better communicate with what is always a difficult to audience to reach.

It’s clear from looking at just part of what has been achieved over the last five years that we’ve come a long way. It’s equally apparent that there’s a long way to go, and that the road will continue to curve – and not necessarily in all the right places.

Time will tell whether this achieves everything Richard – and we – hoped. We will seek to gather testimony from people who’ve done both old and new style apprenticeships, so we can pitch them against each other, and ask specific questions of employers; have productivity levels increased, have they better settled into the business, have they lifted other members of the business?

Of course, with the standards still at very early stages of delivery, it will be a while before we have meaningful data. But what we should all bear in mind is that these are new apprenticeships with a particular goal in mind: to add value. Employers and other stakeholders should provide robust, ongoing feedback to ensure their efficacy both now and in the future.

What next?

Reconsider the role of qualifications in apprenticeships

There are a lot of good things about qualifications, some of which I feel have been lost in translation following Richard’s report. They add structure, content and context to apprenticeships, and can be a great help when it comes to benchmarking. Many levy-paying employers are relatively new to the area of apprenticeships, and the current standards do nothing to promote the value that qualifications can add. This issue can be addressed head on by: 1) reviewing the standards and identifying those areas where high quality qualifications - designed specifically to draw out the requirements of the standards - would enhance the apprenticeship in question, and 2) providing recommendations/incentives to employers to use them.

Prioritise benchmarking

Design a single, robust and overarching set of quality assurance criteria for all EPA EQA organisations to ensure consistency, rigour and fairness. As a longer term goal consider whether establishing a single regulator would resolve potential issues around standardisation.

Dial up promotion to young people

We’ve been saying this for so long, but it’s time to take active, demonstrable steps to raise the profile of apprenticeships within schools and colleges. Parents must also be made aware of the options available to their children and the benefits an apprenticeship can bring. Whilst we are reaching more and more stakeholders, providers and employers with this message, there’s still a missing link that is limiting apprenticeships from stepping beyond a perceived glass ceiling from ‘second class citizen’ to ‘best in practice’.

Develop intermediate level apprenticeships

There appears to be an ideological resistance towards level 2 provision, but this is where we can make the biggest difference to the young and the disengaged – the very people we are committed to empowering. This does not need to be a major undertaking; in many cases existing provision for level 2 is extremely effective, however we risk creating a vacuum by withdrawing level 2 frameworks without suitable standards to replace them. Government must listen to employers on this critical issue. I firmly believe that it is only when we have an offering that caters to this – the largest group of people seeking out apprenticeships – that the standards will be embraced.

Jake Tween, Head of Apprenticeships, ILM

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