Petra Wilton, Director of Strategy, Chartered Management Institute

By revolutionising their funding model, the Apprenticeship Levy could reinvigorate the further education sector

Further education colleges have, historically, been prime providers of apprenticeship training, and it is too early to predict how the introduction in April of the Apprenticeship Levy will impact their share of that market.

But many colleges are already adapting. At our recent Partner conference in Birmingham for education providers, employers and apprentices, we heard how progressive FE colleges are moving to work more closely with employers who want to invest in the skills that will make their workforces more competitive and their management and leadership more effective.

And as the FE sector becomes more agile in meeting employers’ needs, I believe it could win a large chunk of the three million apprentices the Government wants by 2020.

Of course, some colleges may choose to play the numbers game, focusing on lower-level, shorter programmes (albeit with lower levels of funding) to raise their intake of apprentices. But colleges that want to play a part in transforming the skills, productivity and performance of organisations in their local economy will want to extend their offer to include higher-quality, more prestigious programmes, linked to professional pathways that for management rise from the team leader at level 3, and then up to the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship (CMDA), and then Senior Leaders Masters Apprenticeship at Level 7.

These were some of the dominant themes which emerged during the conference, when we heard about the growing appetite among employers for higher-level programmes in much-needed and transferable management and leadership skills. Large employers, as well as SMEs, are adopting the new CMDA and investing in professional management apprenticeships from Team Leader Level 3.

Follow the funding

FE providers have traditionally shown less interest in higher level management because such programmes have not been funded to the same extent as lower-level programmes. However, the new funding of the Apprenticeship Levy could revolutionise the delivery models of colleges willing to deliver those Level 5 and above programmes.  As showcased at the CMI Conference, FE providers such as New College Durham have already moved to a mixed model, working in partnership with universities, as well as employers, to accredit their degrees and Master’s programmes.

A huge market awaits those who can adapt and offer that kind of mixed model. The transition will be more challenging for some colleges than others. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and much will depend on a college’s relationships locally. And of course, as was discussed at our conference, there are many other changes with which FE colleges must contend: from area reviews and consolidation across the sector to the introduction of the new ‘T-level’ system in 2019. Over the next two years, FE colleges will have to figure out how they align these new technical qualifications with the pathways into apprenticeships.

But the good news is that apprenticeships and T-levels are both exciting new opportunities to engage and retain learners. FE colleges have a strong track record in working with employers, a wealth of skills and expertise in delivering workplace-based programmes, and should be ideally placed to seize the moment, broadening their offer to a fuller suite of learning opportunities, from lower to higher-level programmes.

Not all colleges are fortunate enough to have large Apprenticeship Levy-employers in their region. But if that is the case, FE colleges can target instead the allocation of funding for non levy-paying employers, and position themselves to offer significant value and flexibility in the SME market. They can maximize the opportunity to work with LEPs, chambers of commerce and other groups to develop and create an innovative offering that can meet local employer demand.

Apprenticeships aren’t just for young people

At our conference, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) chief policy officer Simon Ashworth argued that four million quality apprenticeships are a feasible commitment for a new government to adopt during the next Parliament. And while FE has traditionally focused more on routes to learning for younger people, there is a chance here to widen their scope to include different apprenticeship journeys that tap into the up-skilling and adult learning agendas, too.

The importance of career learning is acknowledged in the Conservative manifesto, for example, while Labour’s election pledges include setting up a commission on lifelong learning tasked with integrating further and higher education. The next government will need to focus on both young people, and up-skilling those already in the workforce with hands-on, practical skills that are relevant to the future of the UK economy. As we head towards Brexit, we’ll need an internationally competitive economy built on world-class skills.

In our own election manifesto for management, the CMI will urge the next government to back the expansion of apprenticeships and improve access to funding – in particular for small businesses. It also needs to work with partners to improve awareness and understanding among young people, parents, employers and existing employees about the opportunities available for up-skilling and developing higher level professional skills.

Delivering exciting new programmes, FE can help meet some of the broader policy objectives beyond the three-million apprentices target, such as widening participation, increasing diversity and increasing social mobility.  The Apprenticeship Levy is a wake-up call, but also a huge opportunity for the FE sector to meet the needs of both employers and learners in a volatile post-Brexit economy.

Petra Wilton, Director of Strategy, Chartered Management Institute
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