Mike Thompson, Chief Executive, Sustain HR Limited

So this week sees more negative headlines regarding the apprenticeship reform programme.

This time in the form of the announcement by the Public Accounts Commission of this afternoon's inquiry into the apprenticeship programme titled, "The Apprenticeships programme: progress review inquiry".

The scope of the inquiry centres largely around the recent National Audit Office (NAO) report which concludes that, despite making changes to the programme, DfE has not enticed employers to use available funds or encouraged enough potential recruits to start an apprenticeship. For example, the number of apprenticeship starts fell substantially after the levy was introduced in April 2017.

In addition, the NAO found that, although DfE has improved its performance measures, it is still not clear how it demonstrates the impact of the programme on economic productivity.

The ESFA also has limited assurance that apprentices are spending at least 20% of their time on off-the-job training.

At first glance you could argue that these are pretty damning criticisms of a failing system.

End-point assessment has replaced a failed tick box assessment methodology


So why is it when I talk on a daily basis to any employers or providers I am hearing almost exactly the opposite ? Whilst there were grumbles and groans as the reforms were announced and employers adjusted to it, I think it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t find any employer who would wish to go back to the old system which was deeply flawed.

Employers are heavily engaged in the design and management of the system through Trailblazer Groups and Employer Panels within the IFA and T level Panels designing the next stage of reforms.

Employers have been listened to for the most part and are more engaged in skills policy than at any time in recent memory.

Gone are the bad old days of high volume, low quality frameworks which had little or no meaningful employer input and which delivered questionable skills uplift and in have come over 400 modern, employer designed, standards that are fit for the new emerging high tech economy.

Lower level standards are being supplemented by higher level qualifications including degrees and Masters degrees and Universities have rightly been placed at the heart of the new system bringing all of the expertise and knowledge they possess to the benefit of employers.

Independent end-point assessment has replaced on the job assessment thereby setting a much higher quality bar and ensuring that providers focus more effort on true development / training activity rather than a failed tick box assessment methodology.

Big challenges facing ESFA

Don’t get me wrong, there are still big challenges facing ESFA. First and foremost is the issue of improving the register of providers (RoTAP) and guaranteeing a high calibre of delivery no matter whether you are a big corporate or an emerging SME. I think this is quite clearly something that hasn’t gone to plan in the early years.

There is still no real easy way to find and assess the capability of a provider by sector or standard and many SMEs remain frustrated that they cannot secure provision for small numbers of learners.

Equally important will be maintaining and growing the number of higher and degree apprenticeships which UK PLC needs to plug the ever growing gap in higher level more specialist skills and the gap in capability of leaders/middle managers across almost ever sector.

The productivity gap referred to by the Inquiry can only be closed through sustained investment in higher level leadership skills across the economy.

Much has been made of the recent changes to how degrees can be awarded via an apprenticeship with some even questioning if the degree apprenticeship can survive.

My read on this is that degrees delivered via apprenticeships are here to stay and remain an important plank in building high level technical and leadership skills vital to drive productivity.

Even with tighter funding bands post recent IFA reviews I believe that innovation in delivery technology will allow this part of the sector to prosper.

Innovation in delivery technology

This innovation is exemplified by the likes of the Open University (OU) which is innovating heavily to help foster social mobility and access to apprenticeships / skills for all. The employers they work with have apprentices of all ages and backgrounds.

The OU is ‘open entry’ which means learners don’t need a prior qualification to study – and so this helps opens up apprenticeships to those who may not have previously had the opportunity to study and gain a higher-level qualification.

The OU is at the forefront of widening access by pioneering tools, approaches and initiatives that support social mobility. This has previously included a pilot recruitment initiative based on key strengths and values rather than qualification requirements.

They also deliver essential employability skills and training for managers and mentors and the OU is currently participating in a pilot with Timewise and other partners to develop a part-time apprenticeship for people who need to work flexibly.

None of this innovation would have happened without the levy and wider reforms and we should be hailing the incredible progress we have seen in what, in skills terms, is a relatively short period of time.

Yes, numbers are down but this is due to poor quality low level apprenticeship numbers falling as provision has left the market.

The numbers of higher level qualifications being delivered has grown at a remarkable rate with the number of degree level qualifications booming. This suggests that quality is winning out over quantity which is surely what we all want ?

Perhaps its time to stop throwing rocks at the DfE greenhouse and instead start to nurture and admire some of the green shoots emerging within?

Mike Thompson, Chief Executive, Sustain HR Limited

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