For anyone outside the skills sector, trying to work out what is going on with apprenticeships as we celebrate another National Apprenticeship Week must be quite baffling.
On the one hand, ministers are telling us how thrilled they are with the number of people starting apprenticeships but at the same time apprenticeship training providers are understandably appalled that starts at the intermediate level are fewer than half of what they were before the levy.
Providers feel that by allowing this to happen, the government is undermining its own social mobility agenda.
Numbers overall are recovering but they are still well down on pre-levy days. Despite this, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) remains a strong supporter of the levy in principle.
Moreover we feel that there is a case for increasing its rate or scope to make the receipts larger, enabling the funding of more apprenticeships for non-levy paying smaller employers.
Why am I tempted to rain on the government’s parade during National Apprenticeship Week (NAW)?
It’s mainly because of the messages that the government itself are promoting, which however well-intentioned are in some cases just plain wrong. For example, apparently the more off-the-job training you do, the more skills development you will get and therefore the better the apprenticeship.
This is absolutely bonkers; it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding amongst many in government about the value of a work based learning apprenticeship and why apprenticeships are so popular with employers. National Apprenticeship Week should actually be about celebrating how much apprentices learn ON the job.
Providers get blamed by officials for not being more positive about the 20% off-the-job training (OTJT) rule but in fact all we are doing is reflecting back the challenges which the ESFA’s funding rule regularly presents to private and public sector employers.
The frustration is doubled by ministers making inappropriate comparisons with the amount of off-the-job training that takes place in other countries.
AELP has undertaken its own research on this and established that Finland is virtually the only European nation other than the UK which doesn’t operate the so-called dual system for apprenticeships where a young person has to spend a compulsory number of hours each week learning in school.
The dual systems abroad often require substantial off-the-job hours and there are two points to make here:
Firstly in his original blueprint for the apprenticeship reforms, Doug Richard said that there should be two distinct routes to acquire skills for a specific sector-based occupation:
- The work based learning apprenticeship is obviously one,
- The classroom based option, which we are now seeing redefined in T levels, is the other.
If the government is requiring a large degree of off-the-job learning in an apprenticeship, then the distinction falls away.
Secondly, it‘s not easy to measure the quality of OTJT within an apprenticeship and Ofsted agrees with AELP that just counting the hours provides no indication of quality.
Ensuring that industry placements within T levels are a success
Last year we partnered with City & Guilds to deliver a major piece of research on ways of ensuring that industry placements within T levels are a success, and perhaps now is the time to build on that by using more research to determine a specific quality measure for OTJT.
In the meantime, the government should accept the Commons Education Committee’s recommendation of a more flexible approach to off-the-job training according to the business sector and level of apprenticeship.
If last year’s NAW events are anything to go by, we will be hearing more fabulous stories this week from apprentices about how acquiring skills in the workplace has transformed their career prospects and we shouldn’t forget that it is in the lower level apprenticeships that the transformation of people’s lives is often the greatest.
AELP fully recognises the value of high quality OTJT within every apprenticeship, but let’s hear more this week about something which is even more important and that’s what is gained from learning on the job.
Mark Dawe, Chief Executive, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)