At our company, WhiteHat, we talk about building an outstanding alternative to university through apprenticeships. We believe that apprenticeships can develop the next generation of high-potential talent through applied learning, while remaining a route distinct from the academic path. But in order for this to happen at scale, we need to be comfortable in acknowledging the differences between what works in an academic context and what works in the workplace.
This is why we’re convinced that we need a greater level of imagination in the design of our apprenticeship system when it comes to benchmarking and progression. At the moment, every apprenticeship is assigned an academic level to provide an indicator of difficulty and length. Unfortunately, academic levels serve little purpose for employers and are a poor and unnecessary attempt to translate applied learning back into an academic frame of reference. We need to have sufficient confidence in the quality of the apprenticeships that we are producing to move beyond the aping of academic qualifications, and instead create a new way of evaluating our apprenticeships by referencing professional pathways.
Regardless of whether you have GCSEs, a BA, an MA or even a PhD, when you start a job, you generally begin at the bottom and have to develop skills to work your way up. If it’s your first time working in that environment, you are a novice on day one. You might have an MA (level 7) in history, but that leaves you no better prepared – from a skills perspective – to be effective in an entry-level job than someone starting in the role whose highest previous qualification was A levels (level 3).
A quick look at some of the new apprenticeship standards on offer shows how little the current system makes sense. The team leader/supervisor apprenticeship is at level 3, equivalent to an A-level qualification and generally targeted at people starting their careers. Yet in order for someone to take this apprenticeship, they need several years of experience and a leadership position. It has the same academic level as an accounts assistant apprenticeship or a business administration apprenticeship, which is focused on teaching people the fundamentals of working in a business environment for the first time.
The levels feel arbitrary and sow confusion among employers, apprentices, parents and teachers. This system should be replaced with something that actually resembles how people develop their careers: an entry/intermediate/advanced apprenticeship system. Regardless of your prior academic qualifications, if you are entering a role for the first time, you start as an entry-level apprentice. You can then progress to an intermediate-level apprenticeship. Finally, after successfully completing this, you can start an advanced apprenticeship. The whole process might take up to five years.
This would make the system much easier to navigate and allow for clearer pathways to be built, underpinning a long-term approach to learning and development. It would also support the creation of broader apprenticeships, and ensure that they don’t become too niche at the outset.
The majority of entry-level apprenticeships should fall across one of several pathways: eg, business operations, tech/digital, finance. Intermediate apprenticeships could then specialise further, with optional modules pursued within each pathway: eg, within business operations you could start with an entry-level qualification in business administration, and move on to an intermediate apprenticeship in HR/learning and development or one in sales/growth. Finally, you would be able to progress on to an advanced apprenticeship, building on the skills acquired to date while increasing your level of responsibility, like a project lead or management apprenticeship.
This system would enable apprentices to become more adept as they progress through their chosen pathway, giving them flexibility to determine the right route for them as they learn more about potential careers, what interests them and their own strengths.
Adopting this approach would allow apprentices to transfer their skills more easily. Being able to take learned skills and apply them to new fields will be essential for future success. It would also make it much easier for providers to offer courses in currently under-served qualification areas, employing skilled practitioners to coach apprentices as they progress into advanced apprenticeships requiring a higher degree of specialism.
It would remove the confusion we see among employers as they grapple with the issue of where academic levels fit into their hiring strategy and business plans. The current system leads to parents and teachers becoming fixated only on targeting higher-level qualifications, and in particular degree-level apprenticeships, even if that isn’t the right first step for those starting out on their career.
The government has been prudent to make apprenticeships a core part of its strategy. But they are not purely academic qualifications and should not be treated in the same way. Many of those who pursue an apprenticeship do so because they are looking for an alternative to the “university or bust” system.
It’s time to retire the outdated system of academic equivalence. Apprenticeships are far more than an academic credentialing exercise; we’re creating future leaders.
Euan Blair and Sophie Adelman are co-founders of WhiteHat, a tech start-up and training provider