Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Partnership Director, Kaplan Financial

In the early 2000’s I spent a few years working for Volkswagen. It was probably the most enlightening period of my career.

I learned a lot about the importance of continual improvement, product cycles and the need to incessantly invest in products and service.

How to refresh and relaunch a product without trashing the reputation of its predecessor.

The latest electric VW Golf is just an innovative as the Mark I was 40 years ago – and it is still recognisably a Golf – just one that has had forty years of continual investment and evolution behind it….

The Mark 5 Apprenticeship Model

The Apprenticeship model before this one was the Specification for Apprenticeship Standards (SASE).

When launched in April 2011 SASE was a major advance in Apprenticeships in England and it introduced some key concepts that have stood the test of time:

  1. Apprenticeship content should be ‘work-based’ i.e. different to full-time education courses and set by employers (at the time via sector skills bodies as proxies)
  2. Functional Skills should be part of the wider Apprenticeship curriculum
  3. Apprentices can be any age
  4. Apprenticeships should have minimum durations
  5. Apprentices have to be employed and paid from day 1

This legal and policy framework led to an explosion in confidence in Apprenticeships and as a result ‘starts’ grew from 250,000 in 2009 to 450,000 in 2012.

What followed then was a long campaign of (sometimes justified) criticism of the SASE Apprenticeship model from many quarters, including the National Audit Office* (relevant as they are on the war path again).

These new SASE Apprenticeships were labelled as “too short, too easy, too ‘NVQ’" and we were told that there were “too many level 2 learners in service industries and not enough high skilled technicians” being trained.

This criticism unsettled policy makers and eventually led to an end of investment in the product (apprenticeships and their providers).

Spend per Apprentice was reduced year on year and talk of low quality and profiteering eroded confidence in investors and employers.

As would happen in any industry under investment and unchallenged criticism became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am desperately hoping that this cycle is not about to be repeated, and that instead there will be continued investment in what has become the key education and skills solution - one that is needed now more than ever as we face the challenges of Brexit and Automation

The Mark 6 Apprenticeship Model

As predicted by the minister Anne Milton some 9 months ago, quarter 1 of the 2018/19 Academic Year saw (at long last) an end to the decline in the Apprenticeship start volumes.

This is great news and means that the new system is really taking off:

  • New starts are up 15 % year on year in the quarter (admittedly against a terrible first quarter last year).
  • 90% of large levy payers activating their accounts (£100k+)
  • 300 new standards available across a full range of sectors and levels

It is surely time to celebrate the dawn of the new era, isn't it?

Well yes, it is.

But there are dark clouds gathering that must be confronted before they create any sense of impending doom again.

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Finding the Apprenticeship ‘Goldilocks zone'

The SASE Apprenticeships were criticised for being too short, too basic and being filled with low wage, low skill learners.

Today’s programme is criticised for being too high-level (degree / masters rich) and being taken up by too many highly-paid, middle-class professionals.

You just can’t win!

The Government is obsessed by creating a ‘just right’ Goldilocks programme full of 18-21 year olds – who chose not to go to University – undertaking Level 4 ‘STEM’ programmes.

The problem is the UK economy doesn’t always do what the ‘Government’ wants and the whole point of apprenticeships is that they are demand, not government led.

The employers of the UK have to be allowed to decide what skills they need.

Non-levy funding

While the levy is far from dry - that is not the case for non-levy employers. Many providers are reporting funding shortages – while others sit on unspent allocations.

How can we be spending money on Apprenticeship advertising whilst we are turning genuine employers away?

Let us not forget that SMEs have been the bedrock of creating Apprenticeship opportunities for young people in particular.

Providers are being encouraged to individually move money from provider to provider or from Levy account to non-levy account, which is extremely inefficient.

We have to trust that funding agency will ensure funding ends up where it is needed

End point Assessment

This is clearly not operating at capacity yet. It is irresponsible for us to wait and see which EPAOs fail and which thrive.

Apprenticeships are too important to be subject to market testing.

We need proactive Ofqual engagement and support to make this key element of the new system work for everyone from day one.

Where is the learning from every EPA success and failure being recorded and shared?

UK not OK

Still no concerted efforts for the four education departments to work together and to put aside their differences - for the good of UK plc.

Denying employers the ability to offer a single apprenticeship scheme for all of their UK colleagues is unjustifiable post Brexit.

Caps, rates and Prior learning

The tax payer should expect value for money and exploitation has no place in the education sector. And it may be that some apprenticeship caps were incorrectly set when first allocated and need to be adjusted.

But the priority should not be solely on saving money – death by 1,000 cuts – as this will prevent investment and innovation and just drive down quality.

Instead our priority must always be on improving quality by increasing quality and expertise.

Where are the forums of good practise and expertise that are informing design and delivery sector wide?

Ofsted assess what they see, ETF focus on practioners and the AELP run helpful forums but there is no strategic focus on the core product issues.

Who will be long term custodians of each Standard – how can we future proof them to adapt to the challenge of Automation and the Digital workplace revolution?

I have no doubt that these questions occupy the minds of the best and brightest at the ESFA and IFA. And that it is still possible that we will create a world class Apprenticeship programme, just when we need one most.

But it is not quite clear who is prepared to both defend the current programme whilst also leading its continual improvement.

We must not rest on our laurels; the Richard Review was not carved in stone.

We must show everyone that there is an active programme of investment designed to achieve excellence through continual evolution.

As former colleagues at Volkswagen would say – what have we learned from Apprenticeship Mark 6 that will help make sure Apprenticeship Mark 7 is even better?

Richard Marsh, Apprenticeship Partnership Director, Kaplan Financial

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