At a time when public sector funding cuts are commonplace, the government's commitment to increasing apprenticeships – and the £250m set aside to fund this into 2014/15 – has been welcome news for many. For young people, it's an opportunity to be paid while learning skills that could subsequently secure long-term job prospects. For employers, there's the chance to improve productivity and be more competitive in a cost-effective way. For the economy as a whole, apprenticeships directly address the imminent skills shortage and could help boost the UK's financial recovery.
It falls to FE colleges and other training providers to be the glue that holds the disparate elements of administering apprenticeships together. But the additional funding that an increase in vocational offering brings will no doubt be gladly received by them. In fact, a recent survey of colleges by Capita FHE revealed that 49% of those questioned intended to increase their apprenticeship offering, falling in line with the current government focus and maximising available funding.
However, actually managing the provision of apprenticeships may well bring challenges.
Richard Ashwood, director of business development and training at Cirencester College says: "We run a wide variety of apprenticeship frameworks, which demonstrates our flexibility to local employers. But it's a hugely complicated, daunting area of educational activity. Providers need to consider what's going on in the classroom, what's happening in the workplace, the functional skills programme and also keep track of government funding or any subsidies from employers."
Student retention can also be an issue for colleges – official figures show that more than a quarter of apprentices dropped out last year. Cirencester College works hard to keep its retention rate high, as Richard explains: "We start with a comprehensive screening process that places the right person in the right apprenticeship. We then accurately monitor the quality of assessments and we're extremely vigilant when in comes to attendance. The responsibility for managing this falls to our course leaders. They need to be able to intervene immediately if they see any warning signs of potential drop-outs, so an easily accessible vocational qualifications management system is a must."
A key part of a successful apprenticeship programme is robust relationship management between providers and businesses. Toni Pearce, president of the FE NUS, explains why good employer-college relationships are so fundamental when it comes to running apprenticeships: "Firstly, effective relationships between employers and colleges will secure better employment opportunities – at the moment, less than 10% of companies offer apprenticeships.
Secondly, when colleges and employers work together, they create a positive experience for apprentices – preventing them from being treated as low-paid workers who are taught the minimum to tick boxes when an assessor comes to visit - and this helps with the drop-out rate. Thirdly, it's about curriculum. Providers need to know what courses to offer that both employers want and young people need and ensure they maximise transferable skills."
At Cirencester, the college reaps the benefits of cultivating strong relationships via their Employer Engagement programme, as Richard explains: "Two thirds of our apprenticeships are staff from existing employer relationships who want to do more training. This places a demand on us to demonstrate the quality of the service we provide and how adaptable we can be to employer need. Trust is hard won and easily lost so while ICT systems don't negate the need for human contact, we rely on a customer relationship management database to capture the information we need to keep things running smoothly."
Towards The Future
As the government introduces more Level 4 apprenticeships and increases the link between funding and outcomes, the focus on vocational education shows no signs of slowing. Richard foresees this adding a new layer of complexity to the administration process: "We're moving towards an apprenticeship culture but it's going to get more complicated for colleges. Level 4s move into the equivalent of higher education, so we'll see longer courses, possibly with more contribution from the employer.
"Providers will also need to address the longer term implications of collating learner details as the government turns more to linking funding with outcomes. Currently 2.5% of government funding for vocational training is aligned with the outcome. In my opinion, this is likely to grow over the next few years, so keeping hold of electronic data is essential. Having additional frameworks to contend with means it's imperative to have adequate management systems in place."
Rob Elliott is products manager at Capita Further and Higher Education, providers of integrated management information systems to the FE and HE sectors
Follow Rob on Twitter @capitafhe