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'It’s important for the future vision for apprenticeships to be absolutely right'

David Grailey, chief executive of awarding body NCFE, writes:

There’s no doubt about it, apprenticeships are enjoying their time in the sun, basking in the media and political spotlight and heralded (quite rightly) as the key to securing economic recovery. Work-based training is a core part of government strategy to lead young people into sustainable, skilled and meaningful jobs that contribute to the economic recovery. It’s a fantastic aspiration and one which we should all get behind - the transformative power of apprenticeships should not be underestimated.

However, if we are to see success with this objective then it’s important for the future vision for apprenticeships to be absolutely right from the beginning. My concerns lie with specific elements of the Coalition’s ‘The Future of Apprenticeships in England’ reform plan. The government has set out the ambition for new apprenticeship standards to be written by "trailblazers", translated as "groups of employers working together to design new apprenticeship standards for occupations in their sectors".

These "standards" will be brief, assessed and at a high level they will describe "skills, knowledge and competency required for a specific occupation". The behaviour and knowledge (and, in original plans, the competence) aspects of this assessment would then be graded from an end point assessment.

This is my first concern. As Richard Hamer, education director at BAE systems said recently, "either you can put the wing on the plane or you can’t, you’re either capable of doing a thing or not", which is why for those parts of the apprenticeship in his sector, they won’t be graded.

This raises a question about expectations of consistency across apprenticeship frameworks for stakeholders, in particular, employers. Can employers be confident that a prospective employee who has achieved an equivalent level apprenticeship in a related or other sector has achieved the same level of rigour? And wouldn’t employers be naturally disinclined to take on a "pass"-graded apprentice, when there are "distinction"-graded apprentices out there?

There are more work environment-relevant ways of differentiating excellence for apprentices who’ve put in the extra time and effort (real working practices such as progression through pay scale or an increase in responsibilities). However, how many SMEs have these HR systems and processes in place?

The proposals also set out the goal to include the new "gold standard" GCSEs in English and maths (due September 2015) in apprenticeships. What will this mean for functional skills, and the learners who really value them? Don’t get me wrong, it’s vital that we raise aspirations for these job-critical skills, but not all vocationally inclined learners may see the value in (and indeed, may be put off by) writing essays on iambic pentameter whilst undertaking their apprenticeship. Functional skills, in contrast, allow learners to develop critical literacy and numeracy skills in an accessible and practical way in the work place.

My third concern is around the proposals to fund these new apprenticeship standards. Funding will be directed to employers (not training providers), once they’ve made their contribution toward the cost of the apprentice.

A consultation is currently underway on how to achieve this, with the government proposing two options for routes that the funding could take; through the PAYE (pay as you earn) system, or through an online system of apprenticeship "credit" accounts. The question is, will this place an additional burden on employers (especially micro/small businesses) to manage and facilitate the funding of their apprentices, as well as ‘shopping around’ for the best deal on apprenticeship standards?

An additional fee for 16- and 17-year-olds taking these apprenticeships is also proposed, making the programme less desirable for this critical age group.

The intention is that all of the above will be fully implemented by June 2017 and that pilots with the "trailblazer" leads will have ironed out any teething issues by then.

To sum it up, apprenticeships are big news and I’m delighted that the government is prioritising their progress and pushing them forward. However taking all things into consideration, I feel that we could be in for a tricky implementation of this particular vision of a new apprenticeship system. Potentially we could be faced with a subsequent drop in the number of apprentices achieving their workplace ambitions and this is the last result that anyone wants.


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