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Apprenticeships: time for reform?

06 November 2012

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has published a report highlighting areas of the government's apprenticeships programme that are in need of reform.

Over the last few years, the government has ploughed a lot of money into building the numbers of apprenticeships on offer throughout the economy, but it seems to have lost sight of the fact that quality is just as important (if not more so) than quantity. The culmination of an eleven month inquiry, the BIS Committee report, which was published on Tuesday (November 6) highlights a somewhat uncoordinated effort to ramp up numbers without due regard for the quality of training offered to young people.

Adrian Bailey MP, who chaired the Committee, praised the government for making apprenticeships a priority and devoting significant resources to help them thrive, but warned that money does not necessarily guarantee success. "The apprenticeship programme needs clarity, oversight and, in these straightened times, to demonstrate that it is providing value for money," he said, adding: "there are many areas that require closer scrutiny, careful monitoring or even complete reform."

The evidence-based report lays out the areas where the current model might better serve apprentices and their employers. In particular, it wants government to define an overarching strategy and clear purpose for the apprenticeship programme so that the public and Parliament can monitor progress against the desired outcomes. The report also seeks to reinforce the definition of an 'apprenticeship'- that it is for developing skills, not simply for the validation or consolidation of existing skills.

In the absence of any clarification, says Mr Bailey, there is only confusion - confusion as to what the government is trying to achieve, what apprentices should be focussing on and what employers should be offering. An apprenticeship programme without a clear strategy and purpose will not achieve its goals, but it will be open to abuse, he warns, and this must be addressed as a matter of urgency. Mr Bailey was also critical about the role of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS).

NAS has accepted that its priority in the past has been increasing the number of apprentices and the number of employers taking on apprentices, he concedes, but thinks an urgent review of its objectives and priorities is now due. The Committee was also disappointed by NAS chief executive David Way’s "apparent lack of enthusiasm" regarding its involvement with learners through schools, citing the Education Act 2011 and stating that NAS was not statutorily responsible. The Committee has subsequently recommended that NAS is given statutory responsibility for raising awareness of apprenticeships for students within schools. 

The Engineering Employers' Federation's (EEF's) head of employment and skills policy, Tim Thomas, agrees that we must focus on the quality as well as the quantity of apprenticeships. He points out that while apprenticeship numbers across the economy have increased in recent years, in manufacturing and engineering this has come from intermediate rather than higher-level apprenticeships.

"Manufacturers are placing a growing emphasis on research and development, more sophisticated products and a relentless focus on improving processes," he says. "This means they need more high-level skills and the government should adopt a benchmark of raising the number of higher level STEM apprenticeships by a quarter by 2015.”

On NAS's broader remit, Mr Thomas agrees it has a key role to play in raising awareness of apprenticeships and should engage with schools to help relay this message, but it can’t do this on its own, he says, pointing a finger at the EEF membership. "Over half of manufacturing companies offer apprenticeships to young people to get them into the industry, so they are well placed to go into schools to speak about the opportunities associated with undertaking an apprenticeship and these relationships should be encouraged.”

The CBI's director for employment and skills, Neil Carberry is also in agreement that the government should prioritise apprenticeships, and make them about delivering high-quality training, but the way to achieve these aims is not to heap further red tape onto businesses, as the Committee seems to suggest.

"Too many businesses are already turned-off by the scale of compliance required to get involved, says Mr Carberry. “Instead, we need a clear definition of the quality standard that apprenticeships should reach. And businesses need the government to trust them to deliver apprenticeships, by giving them more control over the funding and content of courses. Too much of the current system delivers what the government will fund, rather than what businesses need.”

Ofsted recently reported on the quality of apprenticeships, with particular focus on subcontracting arrangements. Inspectors found some of the apprenticeship programmes too short in duration to sufficiently embed the skills being developed. There were also some examples of apprentices, particularly younger ones, being used as inexpensive labour during their training and then being discarded as employees to be replaced by new apprentices. Ofsted has recommended that the government and other agencies should consider introducing an independent whistle-blowing hotline, so concerns and potential problems can be picked up quickly.

Responding, NAS chief executive David Way says that raising the quality of apprenticeships remains a constant priority and is vital to ensuring that they are widely recognised as the gold standard of vocational learning. "Over the past 18 months we have introduced a number of new measures to drive up quality and ensure all apprenticeships meet the needs of employers and apprentices.

"A good apprenticeship will always offer a job, the acquisition of new skills and qualifications, relevant and first hand workplace experience, and last sufficiently long to ensure skills are embedded and practised. Ofsted’s report provides valuable insights as we continue to improve apprenticeships and work with skills organisations and the Skills Funding Agency to address any specific instances of poor quality.”

The Ofsted report on the quality of apprenticeships is available for download in various formats here.

Les Hunt

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