From education to employment

Apprenticeships: extending the ladder of opportunity to all

Cerian Ayres, National Head of Technical Education at the Education and Training Foundation

Amidst a challenging global economic outlook, talk of recession, worker shortages and the familiar challenge of poor productivity, the education and skills agenda has never been a higher priority in the UK. Our new Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan MP, has previously held the Apprenticeships and Skills brief at the Department for Education (DfE) and is well placed to recognise the critical role that apprenticeships will – and must – play in addressing the UK’s workforce development.

Indeed, her first speech as Education Secretary at the AoC Conference on 18 November 2022 identified three ‘game changers’ for post-16 education:

  • Local skills improvement plans (LSIPs)
  • Institutes of Technology (IoTs)
  • Excellent teaching in FE

Each of these ‘game changers’ are relevant and central to the delivery of high-quality apprenticeships across further education and skills provision. Supporting high-quality delivery is a key priority for the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), and we are working in partnership with the AoC, AELP, SDN, UVAC and independent evaluator SQW to survey individuals across the sector and employers to understand training needs to inform development of the next stage of the DfE-funded Apprenticeship Workforce Development (AWD) programme.

This important process of collaboration with the sector is a good opportunity to take stock of the current challenges and opportunities the sector faces when delivering apprenticeships throughout England.

Mixed news on delivery quality

We can take some confidence from the latest inspection results from Ofsted for Further Education and Skills, which found that ‘82% of further education and skills providers were judged good or outstanding at their most recent inspection’. Performance by that standard is lower for providers’ first full inspections (65%) and significantly lower in prisons and young offender institutions (37%). But new providers are responding well to feedback, with 79% making reasonable or significant progress across all themes in new provider monitoring visits.

There’s room for improvement, of course. But there are also encouraging signs that the sector is emerging strongly from the pressures of the pandemic – despite a challenging funding environment.

However, apprenticeship provision stands up less well to inspection. Recent research from The St Martin’s Group and the Learning and Work Institute found that, whilst ‘apprenticeship participation has a positive impact on employment outcomes’ , 37% of apprentices withdrew from their course prior to completion. The main reasons cited by survey respondents were:

  • Lack of support from apprentice employers (37% of respondents);
  • Poor course organisation/change to logistics (32%);
  • High workload (29%);
  • Lost interest or motivation (26%);
  • Lack of support from their tutor (26%);
  • Quality of teaching and training (24%).

The research makes it clear that improving partnerships between FE providers – including schools, Higher Education Institutions, and Institutes of Technology – and employers will be key to the improvement of apprenticeship provision. In challenging times, small and medium businesses may be aware that apprenticeships offer a means of effective recruitment and retraining. However, they often lack the knowledge or capacity to navigate the educational landscape through which they are offered. To help, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation have recently created the Education Landscape website and a downloadable Education Landscape Guide, in collaboration with the Federation of Small Businesses, the Careers & Enterprise Company (and others). Such resources help businesses understand how they can benefit from FE partnerships, and highlight the tremendous opportunities that apprenticeships can offer employers.

I’ve previously written in FE News about filling the ‘missing middle’ in Higher Technical Qualifications, establishing (often overlooked) Level 4 and 5 provision that will support employers to upskill their existing workforce and prepare for future jobs that will be both smarter and greener across all sectors of the economy.

Green and emerging skills

The current energy crisis has increased the focus on green, sustainable energy and technologies. It is helping to shift perceptions of the green agenda and ‘net zero’ – from being an economic burden to being an economic and environmental necessity, with commercial and financial benefits for all.

Aptem, a vocational training software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform provider, describes how sustainability and green skills are being embedded in corporations’ social responsibility agendas (for example, through the prevalence of annual sustainability reporting) and in the structures through which apprenticeships are developed and quality assured. A Green Apprenticeship Advisory Panel (GAAP) has been convened that supports the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to enhance existing apprenticeships to ‘ensure that they meet the needs of the employers within the growing green economy’ and ‘create new apprenticeships to reflect new occupations, which will help us to reach net zero’.

Developing green and emerging skills isn’t just about new jobs and apprenticeships. It’s about adapting existing provision to accommodate the challenges of net zero and meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals so we can deliver apprentices that are work-ready in the context of green jobs and new technologies.

Another key player in the development of the green jobs agenda – the Green Jobs Taskforce – released a comprehensive Report to Government, Industry and the Skills Sector in 2021 that illustrates how employment and skills needs across the UK will vary regionally through the transition to net zero.

Embracing technology

Technology is a key driver for skills development. Last year, online course provider Coursera released a ‘Job Skills for 2022’ report that identified the top ten ‘fastest growing digital skills’ in demand by global employers. In addition to some sector-specific skills, such as User Experience Design, the report found some more generic, cross-sector skills in high demand. These included plotting data and statistical visualisation.

Many emerging roles in the workforce will involve data and data science. As FE providers, need to be more comfortable with delivering this type of content to learners and apprentices. Speaking in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, Stephen Mariadas, data scientist and Director of the South West Institute of Technology, shared some valuable tips about how to introduce data science to younger learners in a short video.

Developing work-ready learners also means exposing those learners to technologies that they will use, and the environments they will work in. An excellent example that I’ve encountered recently is from Elizabeth Gower, a Level 3 learner at Plumpton College who speaks eloquently about her preparation to be work-ready for her career in animal care.

To test and challenge our learners, and our provision, we should consider the opportunities that World Skills competitions offer to providers, employers and learners in enhancing careers and employability skills. The winners of the 2022 competition were announced on Friday 25 November. Keep a look out on the World Skills website and across FE media and social media for profiles and further details of the successful individuals and organisations.

EdTech and enhancing our delivery

Our learners are not the only ones who will need to enhance their skills: across FE providers and everyone involved in apprenticeship delivery we will need to improve the way the sector designs and delivers its provision.

The Covid-19 pandemic energised a revolution in digital teaching, training and learning but, post-pandemic, there’s no room for complacency. Paul McKean, Director of Further Education and Skills at Jisc, explored in a blog last year how the virtual classroom, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will play an increasing part in our teaching and learning, and the evaluation of our performance. We also need to prepare for the next generation of ‘digitally native’ learners, already equipped with digital learning skills from primary and secondary school, and with enhanced expectations to match.

Further Education and Skills will, as ever, be pushed by the expectations of our learners and pulled by the demands of industry, employers and technology. To meet those challenges, we need to:

  1. Understand our local and regional economy
  2. Understand how the transition to net zero will impact it
  3. Build high quality provision in partnership with employers and local skills improvement programmes for apprenticeships that service that economy
  4. Keep pace with the technological developments in both industry and education that will support excellence in our apprenticeship delivery.

Our continuous professional development will be key.

CPD for Apprenticeship delivery

As mentioned, as part of the new phase of DfE-funded Apprenticeship Workforce Development (AWD), the ETF and its partners are undertaking a major survey aimed at all those involved in the delivery of apprenticeships. Responses will help shape the continuing professional development (CPD) to be delivered over the next few years.

This is a vital opportunity for the workforce to have its say, so that training needs can be met. All individuals involved in apprenticeship delivery are encouraged to share their views and to share the survey with all relevant contacts in their networks. The survey closes on 2 December 2022.

By Cerian Ayres, National Head of Technical Education at the Education and Training Foundation (ETF)

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