Richard Marsh

A decade of discussion but any real progress? 

“In order to create a fairer, more prosperous and more productive country, we need to reverse the generational decline in higher technical education”. Gavin Williamson September 2020

It has been 10 years since I first spoke about Apprenticeships in FE News. (I even had a little hair left back then!)

At the time we were celebrating hitting 300,000 starts a year in England and the launch of Higher and Adult Apprenticeships. Making England’s Apprenticeship programme the world’s first genuinely all-age, all-level apprenticeship programme.

10 years later and Apprenticeships are still the focus of skills policy and it is inconceivable that they will not feature somewhere in the forthcoming FE white paper and Comprehensive Funding Review.

The key rallying points for the Apprenticeship revival ten years ago was that i) they directly addressed the ‘FE sectors’ perceived lack of responsiveness to employers which had been a focus for several years. And that ii) they would reverse the decline in ‘Technical’ education and training, encouraging young people and adults to see work-based learning programmes as a route to well-paid careers.

The resulting Apprenticeship reform and expansion and in particular the creation of the ‘levy’ created a bridge between Government regulated training courses and employers.

And as result of direct employer engagement via the new standards process and with Government encouragement Apprenticeships have become longer, higher-level and more ‘Technical’.

The core Apprenticeship focus has moved away from NVQ based, entry-level programmes for School leavers such as Business Administration and Customer Services is increasingly aligning with Professional qualifications and registration. An inevitable, but perhaps unwelcome impact of this has been that these higher level, more technical Apprenticeships have been increasingly taken up by an older, more experienced and better qualified cohort.

Over the past decade the percentage of School leavers going into Apprenticeships has fallen. Partly due to their raised academic entry points (as above) but also because there has not been the creation of a national Apprenticeship cycle that employers, young people, careers advisors and others can plan around. And without the guarantee of ‘a place’ there will never be a widespread adoption of Apprenticeships as an option for young people - as parents and young people themselves will not take the chance of leaving Education without there being something waiting for them. The current opportunity guarantee is designed to address this but it is too short-term a programme to effect major change.

Vorsprung dirk technique

So the DFE is now looking at full time education to also create the cohorts of technically minded students that it desperately wishes to see. Addressing the ‘soft middle’ of our workforce’s skills by creating a new cadre of serious-young-students of STEM. Saving them from either low-skilled employment or social science degrees at ‘lower ranked’ (no judgement implied) Universities.

There has long been a policy premise, which is that if we could only get working-class kids to study more Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths etc instead of the subjects that they currently undertake then they will become more productive, better paid workers. The evidence for this from other more productive industrialised nations seems irrefutable.

Of course it would be churlish not to wish for there to be more well paid jobs and for an increase in meaningful careers based on the deployment of respected technical skills. Especially so for young people in the more deprived areas of the country or from less prosperous demographics.

But of this is not our first attempt at this:

  • Foundation Degrees were the answer to this question twenty years ago (Polytechnics 40 years ago) but after an initial flurry of interest they have been dropped by most Universities. And although many Colleges do still offer good Foundation / HNC / HND options they are nowhere near as popular as Business BTECS or Social Science degrees
  • Since then every education white paper, every local LEP plan and every Mayoral assembly in the country has prioritised STEM skills - but this hasn’t translated into a meaningful increase in the numbers studying at levels 4/5.

So now it looks as if central Government is going to be more directive and as it did with Maths / English GCSE resits and with T levels it is going to create some form of national scheme to drive young people into Advanced and Higher-level Technical training.

And if the Government is not quite saying that we can no longer trust young people or Education establishments to decide what’s best for themselves; it is saying that they need a stronger, guiding hand.

The plan then is to ‘create’ more well-skilled do-ers and less well-indebted dreamers and disadvantaged drifters …   and who could argue with that?

To pay for this there will be incentives, both short and long term and also a reduction in other Education budgets somewhere. Perhaps Honours in the Social sciences and ‘Business’ which have grown so much in the past decade will go the same way as Apprenticeship Frameworks and NVQs – consigned to the dustbin of Education policy. Castigated for being too soft and catering to the wishes of students and education establishments rather than the hard needs of the economy. However Universities value their independence and their fees, and so it will not be an easy sell.

Tell me about the money

Over the past 10 years of FE news contributions my most read article was also my shortest and was about money (two lessons there surely) specifically it was about the ‘new’ levy and how it works.

Three years later and we can see that the Levy is producing a healthy surplus that should be enough to meet all Apprenticeship funding needs.

  • In the first three years Levy payers paid almost £7bn into their accounts
  • But they have actually spent less than * £2bn

*NB it is worth noting that this does not include future commitments, just actual spend thus far.

Are we nearly there yet?

And so the very final pieces of the current Apprenticeship reform programme are nearly in place.

The most recent incentives are driving smaller employers to use the Apprenticeship ‘Digital’ funding system and all that remains really is to end funding allocations and get EPAs working smoothly and we can begin the next cycle of reforms!

End Point Assessment functions; but the Apprenticeship Certificate has not yet become a widely recognised symbol and in many industries qualifications are still more valued more highly. The basic funding, timing and relevance of the EPA process still needs some work I believe. But we should not give up yet. I recall when Apprenticeship Framework success rates were just 31% in 2003/4 but they rose year on year until they hit 60% + in 2015/16. New standards will require a similar time span to produce great results but with patience and support they will get there.

New voices

Slightly more than ten years ago, as a complacent civil servant I was taken to task by the irrepressible Robin Landman for failing to fully consider the impact of new Skills policies on minority ethnic populations. It was a sobering experience that I have never forgotten and I was reminded of it again by his powerful, recent article.

This has also made me reflect that perhaps it is time for some of us to make room for a new generation of FE speakers. I am not quite retiring my pen but do I think that we need to consciously make space for new voices to join the decades old debates.

Richard Marsh, Director of Apprenticeships at Kaplan Financial

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