Having occupied senior leadership roles within the FE sector for 27 years, I have seen many educational reforms that have consumed much energy and effort, yet rarely achieved their intent. Often, the original aim is laudable, but something gets lost in the implementation, so that a different prospect emerges.
The government’s focus on apprenticeship growth, as articulated in its three million starts target, initially led to widespread concerns that quantity was being pursued at the expense of quality. There has been a more recent shift towards a focus on quality, but even the major players do not appear to agree on what “high quality” is or how the reforms should proceed.
It is worth asking who is in the driving seat. In 2006, Ewart Keep described state control of the English education and training system as being like playing with the biggest train set in the world (1). At present, it feels like there is too much being prescribed, and we are seeing too many unintended consequences.
In 2012, Doug Richard recommended handing purchasing power to the employer, by redirecting the funding (2). He asserted that this way, training providers would respond first and foremost to the employers’ needs. He also argued that “employers are best-placed to judge the quality and relevance of training and demand the highest possible standards”.
Note, however, that he did not advocate employers picking up the bureaucratic responsibilities that are now being expected of them. Nor did he necessarily envisage that employers might aspire to become training organisations and may not demand the highest possible standards of themselves. (Some may discover the hard way that their definition of high standards does not match that of Ofsted.)
How keen are employers to lead apprenticeships?
In a recent publication, Maia Chankseliani and Susan James Relly suggest the government is overestimating the eagerness and readiness of employers to lead apprenticeships (3). They propose a refocusing from a single-actor-led to a multiple-actor-led system based on good relationships, shared costs and responsibilities.
I wholeheartedly endorse this proposal and would strongly recommend some rebalancing of thinking towards more of a partnership approach, with key players such as employers, training providers, apprentices and the state.
In an Ofsted inspection a few years ago, Derwentside College’s employer partnerships were judged to be “outstanding”. There are two important factors to our approach. One, we consider employers to be in the driving seat, but we help them with the navigation – it is a team effort. Two, employers welcome support in cutting through red tape, leading to us offering hassle-free turnkey solutions.
I believe the burden that employers are currently being expected to shoulder will prevent many from taking on the leading role that the government has created for them.
Post-levy apprenticeship recruitment remains good at Derwentside, but we are seeing more activity from levy payers and less from SMEs. Some small businesses work on tight margins and co-investment may prove to be too much of a barrier when set alongside the requirements for off-the-job training. This is resulting in some excellent opportunities being lost.
The current arrangements are proving to be too prescriptive and off-putting to employers, which seems to counteract all efforts to put them in the driving seat in the first place.
The idiosyncrasies of the Digital Apprenticeship Service, delays in receipt of co-investment, levy payers taking more time to transact and the decision to move to payment in arrears has all placed cash-flow strain on an already weakened sector. There are a growing number of unfunded processes prior to successful apprenticeship sign-up. These all stand to jeopardise the potential success of the reforms.
It will be a tragedy if a large proportion of apprenticeship funding goes unspent and the potential for productivity gains is lost.
Karen Redhead is principal and chief executive at Derwentside College