Last week saw the 12th annual National Apprenticeship Week in England. It was a great cause for celebration as hundreds of events up and down the country showcased the value of apprenticeships – a structured form of skills acquisition dating back to the middle ages. For employers and individuals, it is a reminder that mastery in a chosen field can come from outside the classroom environment as well as from mentors in the workplace.
Surveys of young people regularly show that the learning-by-doing route to success is gaining traction among a digitally savvy generation put off by mountains of university debt. After all, the argument goes, "learning and earning" is a far superior model for career advancement these days than a burgeoning graduate debt crisis based on "pay and pray".
Background: National Apprenticeship Week 2019: Need to know
No guarantees for graduates
Of course, the praying bit relates to the fact that there is no guarantee for graduates of a well-paid career, even after shelling out tens of thousands in borrowed course fees. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 48 per cent of UK graduate debt will never be paid back.
Nearly a decade on from the start of major reforms to English apprenticeships, it is now an appropriate time to cast a critical eye on the programme. Indeed, the National Audit Office (NAO) gave us their judgement, in a second report, published to coincide with National Apprenticeship Week. They concluded that the new approach was costing double the amount compared to the old model. Value for money was questioned in terms of paying for higher-level degree apprenticeships when there has been such a decline in level 2 and youth apprenticeships. And perhaps most damming of all; inconsistencies were found in the way different quality assurance and assessment organisations decide whether an apprentice has been found to be competent or not.
The straightforward question that needs to be asked is whether the programme is delivering on what was promised. What are the outstanding challenges? And what do we need to do to make our apprenticeship model truly the envy of the world?
Following the Richard Review in 2012, the government promised a world-class apprenticeship model. It said the old way of awarding qualifications against "frameworks" was no longer fit for purpose. The role of independent employer-led sector skills councils was swept aside by civil-service supported "trailblazer group" made up of employers drawn from key occupations.
Quangos, like the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, were abolished, with new bodies like the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education taking its place. Old quangos, like the Education Skills Funding Agency, Ofqual and Ofsted, have continued to shape apprenticeship policy, funding and regulation – often in conflict (in terms of their remits) with one another.
Crucially, the whole point of the reforms was to ensure that more companies, not less, engaged in the scheme by hiring significantly more apprentices than had previously been the case. Britain has historically suffered from a chronic productivity problem. The new apprenticeships were trumpeted as partially the answer to all these ills.
Drifting away from aims
Fast forward a few years, and it is now clear that England’s apprenticeship model has drifted significantly away from these original aims. The dismantling of organisations before the new entities had even got off the ground, in hindsight, could be viewed as an act of administrative vandalism.
It resulted in apprenticeship starts falling off a cliff in 2017, as a major programmatic reform (new standards) clashed with a financial innovation – the apprenticeship levy – both at the same time. Meanwhile, the rest of the devolved United Kingdom, that stuck with the old-style frameworks, have continued to see their apprenticeship figures grow.
The trailblazer groups gave the illusion that they were industry-led, but they were in fact run by well-meaning civil servants with little expertise in pedagogy and assessment practices. It is perhaps no wonder that a number of endpoint assessment organisations (EPAOs) are now grappling to implement testing and assessment plans that are riddled with deficiencies.
In some cases, rooky apprentices are being asked to demonstrate their proficiency during an eight-hour practical exercise. Could you imagine the outcry if an academic board set an examination paper that required the candidate to sit and apply themselves for an entire day?
England has witnessed almost the complete collapse in starts among 16- to 24-year olds, with the younger end of the scale hit by a lack of opportunity. This has occurred at the same time as chartered management degree apprenticeships have skyrocketed and the vast majority of apprenticeship placements go to the over 25s.
In a society where lifelong learning should be the norm, it is perhaps admirable to see a 75-year-old start an apprenticeship. But on the other hand, should we really be allowing just about any form of training, at any age, to be badged as an apprenticeship? The real danger of such a really expansive approach is that it ends up simply debasing the currency of the brand.
It is probably still too early to say whether England’s apprenticeship reforms are working. The NAO’s second report into the scheme feels like another wake-up call for the sector. The process of standards development needs to evolve and find a home in formally constituted business-led technical education partnerships (TEPs), overseen by the institute. In turn, these standards should be benchmarked against similar apprenticeship programmes in other leading countries, so that objectively we can comparatively measure the impact on England’s productivity skills and organisational performance.
The Department for Education and the institute really need to better (re)define what an apprenticeship is (and therefore eligible for public funding) and what workforce training is (paid for privately by individuals and employers). As the NAO has found, the current approach to funding may not be financially sustainable unless some difficult political choices are made, by either extending the scope of the levy or rationing which apprenticeships, and at what age group and level, can attract public support.
If ministers were being true to the reforms they themselves began in 2012, they would recalibrate the entire system to one loaded in favour of younger people (16- to 24-year-olds) and at level 5 and below, with the cost of degree apprenticeships picked up by the reformed HE financial system that the post-18 review, led by Philip Augar, is supposed to be working on.
Whatever the on-going debate, England has the key institution now in place, in the form of the institute. Yet, it still has some convincing to do. The input measure of 400 new apprenticeship standards, will ultimately have to result in the outcome performance of better skills and productivity. Only when the overall outcomes of the new apprenticeship system are clearer can it be safely assumed that, as a country, we have an apprenticeship model that competitors will want to emulate. After all, no one is going to be envious of a model built on sand.
Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies