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Opinion: 'Would a Ucas-style application system increase the quality of apprenticeships?'

Graham Hasting-Evans, managing director of awarding body NOCN, calls for an overhaul of the apprenticeship system to open up career opportunities to more young people

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The growth of degree and higher apprenticeships is making the professions more accessible while providing the higher-level technical skills employers need, as well as giving young people a valid career route without going to university full-time. So, is now the time to provide a Ucas-style application system for apprentices? 

Today's Ofsted report suggests that very few apprenticeships are delivering professional-level skills in the sectors that need them most.

And that begs the question: how can we manage the extra 3 million apprenticeships promised within the duration of this Parliament, while ensuring that companies attract the right candidates and provide a level playing field when people are interested in the higher-level apprenticeship qualifications?

Business secretary Sajid Javid has ruled out a degree apprenticeships target. In a one-off evidence session to members of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee last week, the Bromsgrove MP said that what the government wanted to see was an increase in quality. So would a Ucas-style entrance system for high-level and degree apprenticeships help?

In many traditional job roles, employers have stood back from apprentices being fully "employed" (other than perhaps short-term, sandwich-course work experience periods) until the person has "graduated". The apprenticeship "graduates" then have to apply to be employed to complete the necessary practical component of the apprenticeship.

But with these new apprenticeships, will this model be changed? If you are entering a high-level or degree apprenticeship, will you have to be at least "sponsored" in some way by an employer who will also be committed to providing periods of practical experience while you are studying for the formal academic qualification? This would be a radical departure for many FE colleges and universities.

Over the years, colleges and universities have streamlined the process of application and enrolment. The Ucas and clearing systems for university applications give young people focus, manage expectations and provide a support mechanism if things don’t quite go to plan. But what about those who are opting for a degree apprenticeship or higher apprenticeship? Currently this process has nothing to do with employers or employment opportunities. So, will it have to?

It seems to me we’re moving into uncharted territory – and if we’re not careful we might be steering into choppy waters. The current process for potential apprentice recruitment is at best both uncoordinated and unwelcoming for the average 16- to 19-year-old. And when you hear top employers complaining that they can’t fill vacancies, something is very badly wrong.

It’s been widely publicised that schools aren’t well informed when it comes to apprenticeships and career opportunities. The careers service has all but disappeared and the green shoots of its replacement are not as accessible as they should be. The National Apprenticeship Service isn’t as all encompassing as it could be – not all vacancies are advertised on its website and it provides no system for recruitment.

This gap has been partially filled by apprentice brokers, providers and employers – all offering separate and alternative pathways – but how is a young person supposed to know what’s best and make an informed decision?

Back in the 20th century, apprenticeships were considered suitable only for craftspeople, not for the professional and technical in the economy. This was despite the fact that the actual approach at a conceptual level for developing the learning and competencies for a professional were the same tried and tested ones that worked for the craftsperson. The government has now recognised this and is clearly starting to use the word apprenticeship for all types of jobs that become qualified though an apprenticeship model.

I believe we need to develop an apprenticeship and employment short-term transitional model for high-level and degree apprenticeships that employers will buy into. It needs to be clear about whether or not the person has to be employed during their period of formal education. This model needs to be part of the new industry-led governance structure we now urgently need to put in place. And in the longer term, a model needs to be agreed and the system implemented to make it work ­with employers, working jointly with government, responsible for driving it.

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