Holier-than-thou attitude limits new apprenticeships

22nd April 2016 at 00:00

It would be daft to turn the Richard Review of Apprenticeships into a holy text that we can never deviate from (bit.ly/RichardRev). It wasn’t written that way, it won’t bear that weight and I’m sure that Doug Richard himself would say he meant it to be a framework, not a straitjacket.

And the trouble with holy texts is that different people interpret them differently, all too often turning their interpretation into a doctrine. That’s exactly what the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has done. Richard is an entrepreneur, so when he took a swipe at the way qualifications have been misused in the past, it was exactly that: a swipe, not a detailed, exhaustive critique. It was a well-aimed swipe, to be sure, but it’s a mistake for Bis to turn it into a new doctrine.

Let’s look at what he said. First, the notion of a successful apprentice “graduating” to the next stage of their career has been lost, replaced by a “welter of qualifications that…serve to support the apprentice’s progress often without ever declaring their final competency”. (Note that “often”: he’s not saying “always”.)

He wants each occupation defined by a standard, and the Trailblazer reforms grant his wish. I’ve no problem with that.

Second, he finds the qualifications on offer confusing and unreliable: “We need clear, effective and trusted qualifications.” He’s saying “improve them”, not “bin them”. He talks about the new apprenticeship standards he advocates as “new qualifications”. He’s not agin qualifications.

And third, he’s concerned that “overly detailed specifications for each qualification” constrain employers and constrain innovation. That’s a complaint about badly designed qualifications, not about qualifications per se.

These are all important concerns, but none justify Bis taking so strongly against including qualifications in new-style apprenticeships. It does accept them in certain circumstances, but objected to the inclusion of a number of them in one of the draft standards for the shipping sector, including the Entry Into Enclosed Spaces certificate.

That really annoyed our working group. Entry into enclosed spaces is the most common cause of death on board a ship (because of depleted oxygen). It’s a one-day course, and we readily agreed to include it in the standard to ensure that every apprentice would complete it at the start of their career and learn how to keep themselves safe. It’s not confusing, it’s not overly detailed; it’s the industry-standard course accredited by the respected, employerled Merchant Navy Training Board.

But Bis said no. “The MNTB Entry into Enclosed Spaces certificate is not a regulated qualification, so while we accept the need for it as part of this role it cannot be included as part of the standard.” Richard said nothing of preferring regulated qualifications over others. What he did say was: “It is complicated and off-putting to an employer to have to undertake paperwork gymnastics to pigeonhole their system into a predefined set of curricular approaches.”

Here’s one last quotation from the holy text. “In taking forward the recommendations made in this report, government must be mindful to protect what works…ensuring that change is led by employers.” In this case employers (and our trade unions) are adamant that they want to include this qualification.

Surely what Bis should do, with us and others caught up in its doctrinaire approach, is accept the settled will of employer groups when they say they want to include qualifications along the way to an agreed standard. Test our assertion by all means, but in the spirit of employer leadership, ultimately, Bis should embrace it. Amen.

Iain Mackinnon is secretary to the Maritime Skills Alliance and is writing in a personal capacity

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