Welcome news on apprentices this week, but there’s still work to be done (Guest Post)

In this guest post, Charlotte Bosworth, Director of Skills and Employment at awarding body, OCR, comments on recent announcements by the Labour Party concerning their plans to create 100,000 new apprenticeships and the consequences of proposed changes to Level 2 apprenticeships. 

The esteem and value accorded to vocationally-based education in Germany is well known.  Aspiring to the standards set in Europe’s most successful and prosperous economy appears to have informed our thinking here in the UK – that’s if the recent pronouncement by Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt is anything to go by.

In an effort to rival the effective German approach, Cllr Hunt announced at this year’s party conference that Labour plan to create 100,000 ‘super-apprenticeships’, targeting what are, in his words, ‘the forgotten kids’ who did not go to university.  He promised that the Labour Government will ensure that Further Education colleges focus on training for local jobs, responding to local need, and that students will undertake a two year apprenticeship which concludes with an industry-recognised technical baccalaureate.  The announcements sit alongside the Labour Party’s Skills Taskforce report on apprenticeships, which outlines that all apprenticeships should be positioned at Level 3 or above.

FlagsInterestingly, Tristram Hunt also insisted that any business receiving more that £1 million of public funding must reciprocate their support by taking on an agreed cohort of apprentices under the terms of any contractual arrangement.

As an organisation that has, for a considerable time advocated the merits, advantages and positive outcomes associated with vocational education and training, it is heartening to hear such significant pledges from MPs at the heart of Government.

We have since foreseen shifts in the occupational landscape, and have argued that qualifications and skills attainment need to adapt in order to support young people, whilst also meeting the changing needs of the employment industry, in particular that which relates to advanced manufacturing and STEM industries.   It is great to see that the contribution and value of vocational based training is beginning to be recognised and supported by key stakeholders and political leaders, as society begins to realise the impact such skills and qualifications can have on shaping the future prospects of our younger generations.

However, as experts in the field of apprenticeships and vocational training provision, we would advise that an overarching strategy is put in place to clarify and formalise the strategy put forward at the Party Conference, whilst there are also details within the proposals that we would disagree with in principle.

Firstly, we believe that the proposed changes to position all apprenticeships at Level 3 is an overly structural response, and one Young peoplewhich inhibits learner’s flexibility and vocational growth. Students should be free to focus on the needs of their sector in order to prepare themselves for future employment, needs which do not fit neatly into a single tier skills package.  In addition, by moving away from Level 2 apprenticeships, Labour runs the very real risk of making some apprenticeships within certain sectors inaccessible to students – the outcomes of such a drastic, and sudden, change to the system needs to be carefully considered and backed up by real research.

Secondly, it is critical that the move to instigate the super apprenticeship programme is not undertaken in isolation, but is seen as part of a coherent, overarching strategic approach to vocational education – including a vision for future employment pathways and career opportunities post-education.

In our view, the backbone of any apprenticeship strategy must lie in the regulated supervision of companies involved in any such scheme, along with the clear and open publication of key delivery  criteria that are underpinned by measurable of success – be that further education/training or direct employment opportunities.  By developing clear guidelines from the outset, companies involved in the scheme will be automatically aligned and actually supported by those transparent, measurable outcomes shared and agreed between all invested parties.  To put it simply, the apprenticeship agreement must not simply be a ‘tick box’ exercise for companies to partake in as part of a wider funding agreement, but must be closely built into the operational, financial and strategic aims of the business itself in order to ensure the programme’s viability at macro level, as well as, of course, the success of the participants and their ongoing employment prospects at a micro scale.

MoneyAnd thirdly, given the controversy surrounding unemployed young and the government’s ‘Work for your Benefit’ schemes, clear thought must be given to the payment structures and agreements for apprentices undertaking the programme, so that such pay accurately reflects the work undertaken and the skills level at which apprentices are working. Strategy relating to pay does not need to be a complex one, but it must be fair, and it must be regulated across the board.

With this in mind, and to summarise OCR’s initial recommendations, my message back to Tristram Hunt and his colleagues as we stand here today would be to implement a simple, tiered approach to underscore the merits of ‘super apprenticeships’:

  • Talk to training providers, businesses, stakeholders – those in the know. By finding out what the specific skills gaps and barriers or issues are, you can create a far more responsive and encompassing strategy
  • Take this insight and use it to create a clear overarching strategy and framework which both regulates and supports students and companies participating in the initiative
  • Make it mandatory that real jobs are available within participating organisations on conclusion of the two year apprenticeships. It simply is not an option to discard apprentices who have put in the time and effort to attain the relevant skills and I would go as far to argue that it is worse to engage students in an apprenticeship and watch them ‘drop-off’ the other side with no prospects or offer of employment than simply to not run the programme in the first place
  • Lastly, put comprehensive and unambiguous measures of success in place for the programme so that proper and fair future analysis can be made and learnings taken away

If this approach is adopted, I am confident that the laudable aims behind initiatives such as ‘super apprenticeships’, will go a long way in addressing the needs of a changing employment market, whilst supporting our young people by engendering them with the confidence, aptitude and skills needed to thrive in work, and in life.