Opinion: 'Financial fraud in apprenticeships is not the only deception'

17th May 2016 at 17:06
The lack of a simple standard for the length of apprenticeships may impact on quality, writes a founding member of Tutor Voices

TES recently reported that experts are warning that the introduction of the apprenticeship levy could lead to a prevalence of 'shocking fraud' unless robust safeguards are put in place. I argue that financial fraud is not the only apprenticeship deception.

My study of full-time courses and apprenticeships in plumbing revealed mass inequalities in regard to the length of time served in the work context by plumbing qualification candidates. The industry standard for plumbing apprenticeships generally consisted of four years time served with day release at college. However, the unapprenticed, full-time college students were not required to accrue four years’ work experience. Moreover, adult career-changers and upskillers had the opportunity to fast-track the apprenticeship qualification by doing a college-based certificate in a matter of months. They could then meet the minimum requirements of the on-site aspect of the NVQ qualification in a matter of days. The new inclusive trailblazer end-tests risk inadvertently perpetuating these inequalities.

Not evidence-based

The move towards trailblazer end-testing was influenced by the Richard review on apprenticeships. One major weakness of this review is that it was not based on empirical evidence. Richard actually used the driving test as an analogy to substantiate the benefits of end-testing. He maintained that the process of learning to drive was unimportant. "All that matters is that they can drive," he wrote.

It is a mistake, however, to think that the test result is all that matters in plumbing apprenticeships. In craft occupations, a meaningful curriculum and ongoing supervision of apprentices’ learning are equally important, especially in relation to apprentices working safely.

The FE colleges in my study took a similarly simplistic approach. College assessments were found to be low-fidelity in nature, shaped by market flexibility and organised around institutional convenience. In addition, the process of being supervised and corrected over a long duration in the workplace was also found to be an essential aspect of apprenticeship learning that could not be replicated in full-time college courses. My study argued for the importance of a coherently structured curriculum and integrated work experience in the learning and understanding of vocational skills and knowledge.

There is still ambiguity

There is strong evidence from my study of the need for extensive supervised work experience and, moreover, biographical work experience is highly valued by teachers, assessors and apprentices. But there is still ambiguity surrounding this matter in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) trailblazer guidance.

It states that "a new entrant to the occupation will require at least one year of training to meet the standard" but fails to specify where this training should be undertaken. It thus implies that plumbing competence can be acquired through college-based training without the need for sustained employment. These inequalities in apprenticeship qualifications now present conflicts of interest in a complex milieu where young apprentices, adult apprentices, unapprenticed full-time students and fast-track adult students are undertaking the same qualifications to compete for future jobs. 

In a move to exclude existing experienced workers from gaining apprenticeship qualifications, Richard contradicted his own thesis, writing: "someone already doing the job for a significant period of time, should, by definition, already be at the standard required to do the job". However, despite the fact that apprentices work for years during their training, no standard timescale has been placed on time-serving either in the current apprenticeships or in the new trailblazer qualifications. The current trailblazer standard for the domestic plumbing and heating technician appears to exceed the minimum duration of one year suggested by Bis in their trailblazer guidance:

Duration: Typical completion time is likely to be 48 months. This may reduce if an apprentice has gained previous relevant knowledge and skills, which is recognised as accredited prior learning.

Low aspiration

However, this apprenticeship duration is not standardised, and furthermore it is left open to interpretation as to what constitutes accredited prior learning. The lack of a simple standard for the length of apprenticeship may impact on the quality of apprenticeship qualifications and lead to the low professional standing of the plumbing qualification among employers and apprentices. My study showed that the plumbing NVQ, the outcome of a four-year apprenticeship, was a qualification that few held in high esteem. The trailblazer thus perpetuates the existing culture of low aspiration and the diminishing sense of professional identity in the plumbing occupation.

In conclusion, the new trailblazer end-testing stands to deprive apprentices of the value of their time-serving at work, which is so essential to competent performance and the standing of the profession in society. As a result, a more robust plumbing apprenticeship standard is needed along with the recognition of professional status for time served in the workplace. This will ensure that the future employment interests of apprenticed students are protected and that they can be distinguished from unapprenticed students.

Dr Simon Reddy is a master plumber, teacher, and a founding member of Tutor Voices. He tweets at @reddyplumbing

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