Dr Simon Reddy, Master Plumber and, the Institute Route Panel Member

Has anything changed? 

As a plumbing teacher, I always thought it was unfair that the majority of full-time plumbing students had received training that would not prepare them for the challenges and problems of the workplace.

In addition, it troubled me that hardly any full-time plumbing students managed to get apprenticeships or jobs with plumbing firms.

This article looks into student progression and some of the quality changes in further education and apprenticeships since 2015. This was the year I submitted parliamentary evidence for the UK government investigation ‘Overlooked and left behind: improving the transition from school to work for the majority of young people’.

Social Mobility and Student Progression

To understand the need for further education provision and apprenticeships for young people, it is important to consider some historical events and strategies.

Youth unemployment rose sharply following the UK’s de-industrialisation in the 1970s. The subsequent street riots of 1981 prompted the government to take action on employment and training opportunities.

Noticing that this working class cohort presented the highest risk in terms of crime, Youth Training Schemes were created, and often involved low-paid employment in sectors such as construction. For the majority who did not find work, there were full-time courses available in further education to help young people progress into jobs and apprenticeships at a later stage – or so it was assumed.

Apprenticeship: A Strategy for Growth (1998) arguably set out the plan for apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships for the decades that followed. It was also around this time when tertiary education became market driven. The strategy described the social and economic benefits of exploiting the potential of apprenticeships. There were benefits for society owing to teenagers attending college by way of crime reduction.

The economic benefits of apprenticeships included lower economic inflation – it was argued that oversupplying apprentices in sectors such as construction would lead to wage deflation. The strategy reasoned that falling wages would keep macroeconomic inflation low. Low wages for workers provided an opportunity for firms to employ more people, helping to reduce unemployment.

This strategy made way for the marketing of courses to entice young people who were not in employment or going to university via the A-level route. Apprenticeships were useful for marketing purposes because it was a brand that young people and their parents could trust. Young people were encouraged to get an apprenticeship, which very often came with a two or three-year pre-apprenticeship course at college.

Many of these college courses were marketed with credible stories of transformation – with people having second chances and life-changing experiences, allowing them to progress in their lives. There were also stories of financial reward with rich and famous people stepping-up to endorse apprenticeships.

Marketing departments in colleges joined the government’s drive to increase the number of apprenticeships (and pre-apprenticeships), often accompanied with stories of premier-league wages for apprentices and chronic skill shortages.

It must be understood that skill shortages imply that employers are crying out for labour, and that students can expect easy jobs and high wages because there is little competition for your skills.

Vast majority of students had no work placement

However, it was more often the case that the college student could not find a work placement or apprenticeship after two years of pre-apprenticeship training. Usually, these full-time students had little choice other than to continue onto a third year of technical training without any work placement.

Evidence in my 2015 parliamentary submission set out my observations on how young people on college courses were not only short of money, they also lacked networks of people in social positions who could support them. I reported that some 16 or 18-year-old full-time students on plumbing courses had friends or family relatives who were ‘in the trade’ and offering work experience.

However, I concluded that the vast majority of students had no work placement at all. One plumbing student had sent over 50 job applications and received no responses. Another student, named Connor, had been given an unpaid work placement by his father’s friend.

I asked Connor how long he had been working unpaid:

...it‘s probably about six months...nine till about five. (Connor C2)

I asked Connor if he had ever asked his employer for wages:

No, I don‘t like to ask him really. I needed a work placement to come on this course to carry on, so (Connor C2)

Connor‘s difficulties in obtaining a paid apprenticeship were accompanied by other forms of economic hardship. He was no longer entitled to educational maintenance allowance, which was a small weekly payment made to full-time students during preparatory training. Consequently, it was difficult for him to buy books for his apprenticeship training at level 3.

Connor explained that he was reliant upon his parents for support:

Mum and dad help out as much as they can, because they are on low income as well. It’s a struggle for all of us. (Connor C2)

The evidence indicated that some of the poorest people in the UK, who followed the apprenticeship dream, were working unpaid or on very low wages. I found that the same situation was taking place across the three colleges in the study: hundreds of full-time plumbing students on courses without apprenticeships or jobs.

Looking at progression rates for 16-18 year-olds in 2018/19 only around 9% of full-time students progressed to apprenticeships from schools or further education colleges. Added to this, around 25% progressed into employment excluding apprenticeships. So, while young people were often being told about high wages and skill shortages, most were still struggling to find work after years of training.

The Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (2019) stated there had been no improvement in social mobility in Britain over half a century.

If you are born into less-advantaged groups like those who end-up on full-time college courses in plumbing, then your career may not even get off the ground.

Poor Quality Provision in Further Education

In 2017, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) was scathing over the quality of further education provision. They argued that, rather than employers shaping the courses and content, the provision had largely been informed by the government. IPPR reported low labour market returns and was also critical of further education teachers, suggesting that many did not have teaching qualifications and few came from an industry background.

Although my PhD study Reddy (2014) supports many of the IPPR’s criticisms of further education, teaching quality did not seem to be a problem and tutors were generally professional and caring toward their students. On the other hand, my study found problems with irrelevant curriculum, lack of workplace integration with curriculum and, most dangerous of all in a safety-specific trade: invalid assessment.

The issue of invalid assessment is significant because it means competence qualifications, which are used to assess the performance of engineers in safety-specific trades like plumbing and gas installation, are likely to be invalid and dangerous to public health.

Reddy (2014) argued it was hazardous for a full-time plumbing student to progress to self-employment from a full-time college course unsupervised. Graduates of college courses were almost certain to experience a reality shock, as college-based training and assessments could not replicate the reality and challenges of the workplace.

It is not possible to learn plumbing in two years in a college environment, with little to no practical experience. It is therefore wrong to assume that the student can simply remember the skills, knowledge and competencies and easily apply them to novel situations in a real-world scenario in the future.

In 2016, the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers (IGEM) reported an increase in unsafe work by recently qualified engineers, from 1% to 5%. IGEM reported an overemphasis on classroom learning and poor assessment methods that allowed students to sit papers continuously until they passed – this was also found in my 2014 study for plumbing qualifications.

To address the increase in unsafe work by recently qualified engineers, the Gas Engineer Training Standards Inquiry (GETSI) came about in 2018. The investigation focussed on the quality of training for gas engineers. For this, I travelled to London and attended Parliament to present evidence and it seemed like there was a growing concern by wider stakeholders over the quality of technical education and training.

Improvements in Quality

Lord Sainsbury and the Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education (2016) could be considered as a turning point for quality in UK technical qualifications and apprenticeship provision. In the Post-16 Skills Plan, the panel made 34 recommendations on how to reform the technical education system.

One of these recommendations was for a framework of 15 routes to skilled employment which reduced complexity and provided direction/location for occupations and the development of apprenticeship standards and T level qualifications.  

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (the Institute) adopted the 15-route framework and each has been represented through the creation of route panels comprised of employers of demonstrable knowledge, expertise and credibility in their sectors. The route panels are expected to provide a strategic overview of their occupational route while applying their professional expertise to apprenticeship proposals, standards and assessments plans, which are then sent to the Institute for approval.

The route panels bring about a level of scrutiny that was previously lacking in vocational qualifications. As route panel member for construction, I have witnessed the level of commitment from Institute employees and from dedicated panel members. The people connected to both education and industry all want the best quality and practices for apprentices and young people undertaking technical qualifications.

The qualification offer is improving. The Building Services Engineering (BSE) T Level shows evidence of a curriculum that has benefited from employer engagement. This is in line with the intentions of the current further education white paper: Skills for jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth.

The assessments are also much improved, with several practical and technical tasks grouped around a central project. Areas of the curriculum relate to the central project, as does each assignment to help the student learn the topic and better understand it. This is a much better assessment methodology, allowing for a greater level of complexity in the test tasks compared to the overly used multiple-choice assessments, which mainly tended to test memory.  

Safety is paramount

With consideration for the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the safety of building materials is paramount and the risk assessment of toxic and dangerous materials is now part of everyone’s job in the construction industry.

One example of the Institute’s action towards dangerous construction materials has been around lead-based solder. There is concern about some providers using leaded solder for training because it is cheaper than lead-free solder.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified lead as one of ten chemicals of major public health concern, needing action by Member States to protect public health. The WHO have prohibited construction materials that may contain lead for both installation and repairs undertaken inside new or existing buildings.

Our route panel helped to ensure that use of “lead-free” solder was specified for the building services engineering for construction T Level going live in September. I’m proud that we’re adopting a strong position on safety.

There are certainly things to celebrate about the continual improvement of quality in vocational education, both in terms of safety and the robustness of qualifications. The next important step will be better-supporting progression from entry to higher level which will help to boost social mobility. This will be a major priority for my route panel and the wider Institute looking ahead.

Dr Simon Reddy, Master Plumber and, the Institute Route Panel Member

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