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This Friday was the 13th National Apprenticeship awards, as ever one of the highlights of the Academic year. I have only been to 7 of the 13 ceremonies but they have all followed a consistent and successful formula:

* An enthusiastic minister re affirms the Government’s (and in this case his own) strong commitment to Apprenticeships and to a policy of ‘Quality as well as Quantity’

* A series of incredibly impressive young people collect awards and talk about why they chose Apprenticeships over University &

* Earnest employers win awards, and talk about why Apprenticeships matter to them

Before 2010, the awards were much smaller and had a lower profile, but the creation of the NAS - and the inclusion of ‘adults over 25’ into Apprenticeships six year ago created a step change in the programme’s size and status.

After 2017 the creation of the IFA, with its 100 Professional advisors and 15 Technical pathways – and the inclusion of ‘Graduates into Apprenticeships’, will have a similar effect.

The end of Innocence

As the last awards before the compulsion of the Levy and of Graduates as Apprentices, they were in some way the end of an age of relative innocence in apprenticeships, in that the employers and learners taking part had chosen Apprenticeships as their preferred option.

Many small businesses as well as some Great British employers (British Gas/ Telecoms/ Aerospace/ Forces etc) have consistently employed and celebrated apprentices. Long before they were flavour of the month and all through the Apprenticeship dark days of the 1980s and 90s, they were the ‘torch bearers’ who never lost faith and to whom we owe a great deal. Our challenge is to create more cohorts of equally committed and consistent employers of apprentices.

The awards themselves do still focus on well-funded engineering programmes for young people – an incredibly important and highly symbolic cohort. But one that is no longer representative of the programme at large. This year though, there were also some really interesting Professional Services winners, such as Bond Dickinson, who were there with their excellent provider CILEx Law School.

Hopefully Business & Professional services firms will be able to give traditional apprenticeship sectors an even closer run for their money again next year.

Another welcome aspect of the awards has been the growing synergy with the skills competitions. Competitions are based on the controlled assessment of knowledge and skills in action and as we move to create more defined Technical training routes and more defined and controlled end point assessments for Apprenticeships, there is huge potential for skills competitions to provide a valuable gauge of individual, industry and whole programme progress.

Hockey sticks

Most employers do not mention their providers in their competition entries or in their valedictory speeches. And although the spotlight is rightly theirs – not ours – I think it is a challenge for us to all as providers to deliver such a high level of service that we merit a mention as the learning and development specialists that have supported the winners.

In conversation during the evening, many providers (and employers) commented on the how ‘flat’ Q1 (January – March) looks this year in terms of Apprenticeship starts; as businesses understandably wait for more favourable funding terms before launching 2017 cohorts.

The AELP have very sensibly requested that the 90% funding for Apprentices on new Standards is brought forward in order to create capacity and avoid a hockey stick shaped year – hopefully someone in the SFA or DFE is considering this……..It would be a shame for employers business decisions and people’s careers to be unnecessarily stalled due to funding timetables.

Finding the right person for the job

I was fortunate to be a guest of the very interesting and engaging folk at Capp recruitment, who are pioneering more intelligent methods to help employers find the ‘right person for the right job’. And now that Apprentices are available for everyone this kind of smart selection is going to be more important than ever as employers will be able to select the best fit for them – rather than the best fit for the funding rules.

So congratulations to this year’s winners and let’s hope that in 2018 there will be even more high achieving Apprentices and Apprentice employers providing even greater competition.

Richard Marsh, is Apprenticeship Partnership Director at Kaplan UK

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