From education to employment

Safeguarding the quality of Apprenticeship growth

Since a huge leap in Apprenticeship starts during 2010/11, we have seen enthusiasm for growth reined in by debate over quality and calls to safeguard the Apprenticeship ‘brand’.Government’s laudable commitment to champion vocational learning as a viable alternative to higher education and a route to business growth has helped boost the number and profile of Apprenticeships. But with other developments including funding changes since the end of Train to Gain, media coverage has amplified concerns that not all training described as ‘Apprenticeships’ has lived up to the kind of provision which has justifiably earned a reputation as the ‘gold standard’ for work based learning.

Among many factors, this reputation rests on the value of Apprenticeships as a path to rounded professional and personal development; a robust means of raising skill levels to benefit individuals and their employers; and a gateway to greater achievements in the workplace and beyond.Countless success stories have been overshadowed lately by revelations of poor quality offerings that, in truth, represent the minority of cases.As we consider the next stage of growth, it’s vital to remember the successful track record that makes the Apprenticeship name worth celebrating and protecting.

Of course, against a backdrop of high unemployment, it’s hard not to be swayed by tales of young people exiting short duration programmes that swallow their entitlement to funding and offer little in terms of rigorous training, practical experience or enhanced job prospects. We can’t afford to see people’s one opportunity to claim public support wasted on substandard provision. So I am encouraged to see the Government taking steps to address some of the quality issues that have emerged, for example, around minimum duration and subcontracting arrangements.

These are important and complex issues, which call for a balancing act between decisive action and careful consideration of views from across the FE sector. The swift response will help tackle concerns about reputation damage to Apprenticeships, voiced by 57 per cent of industry employers in an independent survey carried out for EAL earlier this year. And an open debate can instil confidence that further growth will continue to offer practical benefits for businesses, learners and the wider economy.

Minimum duration is a case in point. On the one hand, it’s difficult to reconcile talk of 12 week programmes with the time honoured notion from traditional sectors of an apprentice learning their craft under the guidance of a master tutor.That said, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach doesn’t tally with the varied roles and environments supported by present-day Apprenticeship training, which the Government has recognised within the new 12 month rule by allowing for prior learning and attainment of apprentices aged 19 and over.

This sentiment was again reflected by the industry employers surveyed on our behalf — while nearly 50 per cent agreed that all Apprenticeships should last a minimum period of time to be worthy of the Apprenticeship name, 30 per cent spoke of the need for flexibility to suit different industries and apprentices of varying ages.

The wider debate on Apprenticeship growth asks questions about the balance between public funding and employer contributions; but let’s pause to consider the many employers who do not currently offer any form of Apprenticeship opportunities. It is safe to assume that the more times doubts are raised over quality, the more of a battle we face to convince new employers of the value of investing in work-based learning to develop the motivated staff and high level skills they need to succeed.

And in a time of rising university tuition fees and a scramble for places on the best Apprenticeship schemes, we owe it to learners to make sure that their experience is of sufficient value to advance their progress towards permanent employment and a fulfilling career.

For these reasons, we eagerly await the progress of the employer-led review promised earlier in the year, and the report of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee inquiry that asks whether Apprenticeships are of high enough quality to benefit apprentices and their employers. In the majority of cases, experience suggests that they are — and the challenge is to explore how these successes can be achieved on a larger scale.

Ann Watson is managing director of EAL, the specialist awarding organisation for industry qualifications

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