The Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) has recently widened its definition of when it will allow mandatory qualifications to be part of a new apprenticeship standard. This comes after a lot of pressure from employers who had proposed mandatory qualifications but were ‘turned down’ by the IfA and the Government before them. The clause that has now been included in the guidance is that a mandatory qualification can be included;
if it is an off-the-job technical qualification that does not accredit full occupational competence and would either add breadth to the apprenticeship or provide structure for the off-the-job training.
The good news is that this is such a wide definition that it gives any set of employers the opportunity to include a qualification if they want to. However, it does mean that the IFA has missed the point a bit. The issue is not what the criteria are but whether the IFA should be neutral in the process of determining whether the employers want to have a mandatory qualification.
In other words, the IfA should set out the reasons for and against employers having a mandatory qualification rather than setting criteria against which the IfA will decide. The process should be that the employers decide if there is to be a mandatory qualification and the IfA just test the decision rather than imposing a view that mandatory qualifications are a bad thing unless it passes criteria.
In any event I am sure more Standards will now have mandatory qualifications and employer groups will begin to feel that they are in control of the process rather than a Government sponsored body. It also gives us the opportunity to review the wider issue of qualifications.
It was certainly true that the old frameworks and therefore the provision that went with them were dominated by the qualifications that they were made up of. It was difficult for employers and providers to adapt programmes to exactly what the employer and the apprentices wanted because the qualifications tended to be very structured and inflexible.
However, moving to a point where Government actively discouraged the inclusion of qualifications was a step too far. It was yet another example of the apprenticeship reforms being government and not employer driven.
My own view is that the government should allow employers to make the decision as to whether there should be mandatory qualifications.
Many employer groups would have adopted a mandatory qualification because they knew that until the Standard itself was established employers and most importantly the apprentices would need the qualification to ensure that the skills being developed were portable and understood.
It was not fair on apprentices to expect to trust that their Standard would, of itself, be the qualification they needed. We have to work with organisations that encourage the views of apprentices and young people such as Youth Employment UK to ensure that the apprentices get the programmes and qualifications they need.
So where are we now?
Around half the standards have a mandatory qualification but many employers involved in the Standards groups have said they want a mandatory qualification but have been blocked by Government and now the IFA. Perhaps this change will free up the process.
Some have called for all Standards to have a mandatory qualification and you can understand that call.
However, in my mind flexibility and choice is key so employers should be allowed to both choose whether they want a mandatory qualification but if they do not then it should be made easy for the employer and training provider to include a qualification if they so wish. In my view this is the best way forward. If the employer does believe in the qualification then they will want to include it.
If it’s their choice then they should be committed to it. Similarly, if employers and providers include the apprentice in that discussion (which unfortunately is very rare) then again you will have a greater commitment to the programme than if it is imposed.
There are a couple of barriers to this choice which should be removed. If a qualification is not mandatory then there are restrictions around how they can be funded. The employer cannot fund them within the overall funding for the Standard so that for a Levy payer the employer has to pay directly for the registration and certification costs or the provider can pay for it out of their own funds (i.e. surpluses).
This is very confusing and some statements would lead you to believe that the registration and certification costs cannot be funded by the provider. This is not the case and the provider can pay. However, the difference in the way that mandatory and non-mandatory qualifications can be funded should be removed.
There is also a difference in the process of completing the qualifications. Mandatory qualifications have to be completed before the End Point Assessment begins which does not apply to non-mandatory qualifications. So, if the apprentice is doing a non-mandatory Standard they could use the evidence generated by their EPA to get the qualification of their choice.
However, if the qualification does require a separate test or exam they would have to be completed but they could do that after their EPA is completed. Either way what should drive this process is what is right for the employer and the apprentice, not what fits the very prescriptive rules.
In summary the adoption of wider criteria for mandatory qualifications is a good thing but the IfA should review this change in the light of a process to improve and increase the choices for employers and more importantly the often-forgotten apprentices.
We are led to believe that the IfA is employer driven so but hopefully it will not be long before they engage with providers and apprentices in an open and constructive discussion about the role of qualifications in Standards.
Stewart Segal is a Non-Executive Director of Youth Employment UK and TDLC a training provider.