Recently Skills Minister John Hayes opened a conference with these words: “Real success for us must lie in the difference that the new knowledge and skills that learners acquire will make to their lives and to Britain as a whole … It will lie in the contribution, both economic and social, that learning emboldens them to make in their local communities and in the part they play, individually and collectively, in creating a bigger, more open and more humane society. It will lie, perhaps most significantly of all, in the tradition of taking pride in knowledge and skills that they will in turn pass on to the next generation.”
Passing on, and taking pride in, skills lies at the heart of the Government’s commitment to build sustainable growth and stronger communities through the development of skills. The Skills Strategy paper confirms the increase in Adult Apprenticeships – the Coalition will spend up to £250m creating extra 75,000 apprenticeships for adults in the workplace by 2014-2015, committed to over 200,000 starts per year, and with a ‘reshaping of the programme so that level 3 becomes the level to aspire to’. This will be supported by ‘clear routes into Apprenticeships’, supporting NIACE’s call for a framework for pre-Apprenticeships, for both adults and young people. This would have a positive impact in extending apprenticeship opportunities to people who would otherwise find it impossible to meet the entry requirements for, or sustain, an apprenticeship. Addressing skills gaps and helping learners to develop helpful attitudes and behaviours through pre-apprenticeships will improve the completion rate of apprenticeships and reassure employers as to the readiness of new apprentices which might in turn encourage employers new to apprenticeships to provide much needed apprenticeship places.
The paper also talks of funding ’18 Diversity pilots’ to test out ways of ensuring that those most under represented have access to high quality apprenticeships. This builds on the work of the NAS diversity pilots, the guarantee to Care Leavers, and NIACE’s work supporting employers and providers committed to offering support to care Leavers seeking employment opportunities.
We firmly believe that apprenticeships provide specific technical competences, a broad range of vocational skills and enhanced employability skills. They develop a sense of pride in technical and vocational skills. They provide a firm foundation for a career and have been found to protect against the risk of unemployment, significantly increase earnings over the course of a lifetime and very important, imbue enthusiasm for further learning. When well planned and well delivered, high quality apprenticeships have woven through them basic skills, communication skills, employability skills, and celebration, thereby developing a strong sense of being part of a ‘family’ of skilled artisans.
However, there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed, to ensure that all the adults who can benefit get access to apprenticeships, and to turn the Government’s aspirations into a robust system that all adults can access, and thrive within. We recognise that Adult Apprenticeships are not necessarily the answer for all adults, but that they are a significant part of the ‘mix’ of what is on offer to adults.
Sadly it is likely to be people who are already disadvantaged that find they lose out in the competition to gain apprenticeship places. Two main challenges exist: firstly to succeed in identifying effective mechanisms to support equality and diversity in apprenticeships and secondly to convince employers to make the most of the mechanisms once identified. Support routes of the sort that NIACE has provided through its published guidance for managers and mentors of apprentices leaving care settings will be needed for many employers taking on learners. One immediate improvement, to support the opening up of Apprenticeships, would be for providers to monitor Individual Learner Records as part of their Equality Monitoring strategy, to ensure that we can monitor access and achievement of apprenticeships by under-represented groups. ‘Who participates and who’s missing?’ – and an understanding of why – is crucial. And Adult Apprenticeships will have to be more flexible as adults tend to have messier lives than young people. (Doesn’t this mean that government will need to meet more cost for disadvantaged?)
Whilst apprenticeships are in themselves may be a good thing for many adults, employers freely admit that decisions on whether to offer apprenticeships are driven by business needs. Unlike for young people aged between 16 and 18, there is no commitment to providing an apprenticeship place for all suitably qualified people over 18 who wish to undertake one. Apprenticeships for adults are therefore only available if they meet business needs and competition is fierce. This is fine, if alternatives to apprenticeships remain, through which people can develop their skills of their own volition. However, there is a danger that if apprenticeships become the primary work based learning route at the expense of all other types of skills provision there will be no access to work based training provision for adults who may have different needs, are in SMEs where apprenticeships may be difficult to develop, or simply working for employers who don’t want to develop Apprenticeship schemes.
And we mustn’t forget the needs of apprentices themselves. Because employers expect apprenticeships to serve business needs as well as learners’ needs there are often tensions around the purpose, content, and funding of apprenticeships and significant differences in the status of apprentices within organisations. In this context, it is important that apprentices are given the opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns. To this end, NIACE has supported the establishment of an apprentice panel in the Yorkshire and Humber region which has led to insights being gained which could benefit everyone involved. We would recommend the establishment of mechanisms to ensure that AAs are heard, and that there is a chance for dialogue. Complementing this is the move to celebrate apprenticeship completion; the success of the citizenship ceremonies recently, and the impact of Adult Learners Week regional and national celebrations prove the importance of having success recognised, especially for those for who have rarely experienced it.
Carol Taylor is director of operations at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning