‘It’s like building an aircraft while it’s in flight’

20th April 2018 at 00:00
A year ago, the Institute for Apprenticeships got off to an inauspicious start – rushed into operation with a skeleton staff – and criticism has been mounting over the time it is taking to deliver the new apprenticeships. But the IfA’s boss admits to Jonathan Owen that it still is a ‘work in progress’ and pledges to make it ‘faster and better’ ➧

Little more than a year ago, the Institute for Apprenticeships existed only on paper, and the odds were stacked against it being anywhere near ready to start work on time. The creation of an employer-led body to help to deliver apprenticeships had been announced by George Osborne, who was chancellor at the time, in November 2015.

That announcement marked the start of a frantic race by officials to try and meet the government’s pledge that the new institute would be fully operational by April last year. While they managed to bring it into being on time, it was far from being fully operational.

Only around half of its staff were in post and there were no signs of people rushing to take on the challenge of leading the fledgling organisation. Attempts to recruit a chief executive were unsuccessful. For the first seven months of its existence, Peter Lauener, who was also heading up the Education and Skills Funding Agency, was interim CEO.

It was only last November that the institute announced its first permanent chief executive – with board director Sir Gerry Berragan stepping into the breach.

But in the months since his appointment, there has been increasing criticism of the new apprenticeships, and skills minister Anne Milton has expressed her frustration, saying that the institute needed to “really speed up” its work.

In response, the institute has pledged to become “faster and better”, and is streamlining its processes in a bid to accelerate the approval of new apprenticeship standards.

The new apprenticeships have yet to be embraced enthusiastically by the two key audiences they aim to serve – employers and apprentices. The number of apprenticeship starts has dropped significantly year on year.

And the institute has not exactly been besieged by businesses wanting to get involved in the employer-led organisation. There are just 99 people on the 15 route panels – falling far short of the 250-300 that was previously envisaged.

A year on from its inception, Berragan admits that the institute is “a work in progress” but says: “We have achieved an awful lot.” To date, some 254 standards have been approved for delivery, with another 276 in development. He predicts that there will be more than 400 approved standards by this time next year.

The past year has seen a surge in starts on the new standards, which will eventually replace the old apprenticeship frameworks. A year ago, starts on standards represented around 3 per cent of all starts. They now account for around 40 per cent and we are “starting to reach tipping point between frameworks declining and standards growing”, according to Berragan.

The biggest challenge has been trying to adapt a system that was not designed for employers, he says. Berragan describes it as “taking a process which was designed for a different structure, so an approvals process that was designed for approvals by ministers and decisions by officials, and taking that and applying it to a very different structure – an employer-led organisation with employer expertise at route panel and board level”.

He remarks: “I would describe it as building the aircraft whilst it is already in flight.”

The introduction of end-point assessments has been one of the most contentious features of the new system. There are more than 70 apprenticeship standards with no recognised end-point assessment organisation in place, according to the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP).

Simon Ashworth, chief policy officer at the AELP, says: “With more apprentices starting under the new standards, the position with their ability to complete their programmes with properly functioning end-point assessment arrangements in place is becoming ever more critical by the day – a situation which simply wouldn’t be tolerated if the same young people were doing GCSEs or A levels.”

Berragan admits “there is some work to do on this” but claims: “I don’t think it’s probably the problem that some people are making it out to be for their own reasons.”

Teresa Frith, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, is positive about the progress being made: “We are in a better place than we were a year ago. Things are clearer, the direction of policy has not altered significantly”. Although things are still in the “difficult” process of transition from the old frameworks to the new standards, she says that “there is a strong will amongst those who recognise the benefits of apprenticeships to make the reforms and the levy work”.

The institute already has another big challenge looming. Later this year, it will be given responsibility for technical education, including the new T levels, and renamed the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. Three new board members are being recruited and the institute plans to have an extra 70 staff to cope with the increase in its workload as a result of its expanding remit.

Berragan says he’s “confident” that he has the resources he needs to cope with the demands being placed on the institute.

As for the success of the new apprenticeships, he says that the new system needs time to “bed in” and warns that being “knocked off course” by any further reforms poses the “biggest risk” to the programme.

A Department for Education spokesperson says: “The Institute for Apprenticeships is now well established and by working directly with employers is creating high-quality apprenticeships in a range of professions. The institute is already making progress to simplify and speed up the process of developing new apprenticeship standards and we are now looking ahead to plans for it to expand its remit to include oversight of technical education.”

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