Levy-paying businesses don’t want the hard sell

22nd December 2017 at 00:00
The apprenticeship reforms present an opportunity for colleges, but overzealous marketing can be turn-off, says Darren Hankey, who urges a softer approach

The recent apprenticeship reforms have brought huge challenges to the education sector and will continue to do so as they are rolled out across the country. It’s not something we’re happy with at Hartlepool College of Further Education, but it is something that we have no choice but to embrace.

It appears the industry as a whole has used the uncertainty of the reforms to market their brands, from one-man training providers to entire companies setting up overnight to cold-call levy-paying employers.

But instead of using this as a marketing opportunity, too, we chose to work directly with businesses to explain what the reforms actually meant and how the college could help them solve any future problems. Here’s how we did it.

1. Strategic importance

The changes to the funding of apprenticeship frameworks raised a potential challenge to our income, and to cashflow with the introduction of end-point assessments. So we believed we had to give this issue heightened strategic importance. Senior management at the college created a working group that comprised of myself and the assistant principals, as well as college heads of department for marketing, recruitment, business development and apprenticeships. The group then created a bespoke strategy based around the apprenticeship reforms.

That strategy contained specific “actions”, such as stakeholder mapping sessions; oneto-ones with company staff; support for every single organisation, no matter the size; and regular monitoring and evaluation of that support, on top of regular meetings to check the progress of every organisation.

The working group also delivered internal professional development training to all members of staff who would come into contact with the 400 employers the college is currently working with. Each of these companies was assigned a key contact and armed with materials, so they could confidently inform them about the reforms.

This tactic resulted in a 6 per cent growth in apprenticeships, and we project further significant growth this month, despite it traditionally being a quieter time for recruitment.

2. One-to-one support

Those key contacts for employers ranged from me as the principal working with the companies with which the college has a strategic working relationship, to assessors who work on a day-to-day basis with some of the small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) throughout the local area.

We carried out an analysis and identified other organisations that could benefit from the new apprenticeship system. These were either large levy-paying organisations that had not taken apprentices before, or SMEs that would benefit from taking an apprentice.

As a result, we have retained 100 per cent of our employers and we’ve increased our new customer base to bring in some very large international clients, as well as lots of local smaller businesses.

3. Inform, don’t market

We think it is important to be informative. College staff delivered a series of talks, business breakfasts and presentations out in industry – sometimes to joint associations of multiple employers, sometimes to individual companies and their managers – informing them of the changes and what they meant for their business. We didn’t need to sell our services. What we needed to do was give impartial advice and guidance – our positive reputation as a college would speak for us.

Our head of finance and her staff are now liaising with levy-paying companies, and offering advice in the set-up and administration of their digital accounts.

Our human resources team has also offered advice and support to many smaller companies that don’t have the luxury of a HR coordinator. In other words, we have used our expertise across the whole of Hartlepool College in support of companies rather than relying solely on the apprenticeships team.

Many of the employers we work with have become early adopters of the new standards the reforms have brought in, and we celebrate their successes through case studies, PR and social media marketing; that in turn has further enhanced our offer.

I believe we have a well-established record of delivering highly successful apprenticeship programmes to companies of all sizes and from all sectors – our growth in apprenticeships is evidence of that.

'Do what you do best'

Despite these encouraging figures, we are still unsure how this will translate into actual funding. In many of the areas in which we operate, new standards are not yet available and the funding for apprenticeship frameworks has been cut severely. Where there are new apprenticeship standards, in many cases end-point assessments are not in place and this is quite alarming. I can only imagine the kind of backlash there would be if new GCSEs or A levels were rolled out without final examination procedures in place. Outside of the FE and skills sector, this has hardly received any coverage, but it has added greater uncertainty for apprentices, businesses and providers.

To any apprenticeship provider, I would say to do what you do best and educate rather than market apprenticeships. Colleges face many challenges, but so do our partner businesses. If you educate your local market, you will reap the benefits.

Darren Hankey is principal of Hartlepool College of Further Education

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