For apprenticeships to cement their position as an integral part of how employers diversify their workforce, attract great new talent and develop their people, we need to move more rapidly towards a system focused on outcomes, rather than inputs.
An apprenticeship is intended to support apprentices to learn the knowledge, skills and behaviour to progress and excel in their chosen career. However, for apprenticeships to become a chosen route for an incredible career, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) needs to move away from unnecessary data collection and reams of paperwork. They should focus on what matters most: the apprentice’s learning experience and career development.
The new funding rules, like those that came before them, include hundreds of pages of guidance on what needs to be recorded and tracked as part of an apprenticeship. Less than half a page is dedicated to what is needed to evidence that the apprentice is progressing in their apprenticeship and actually learning. The shift to standards presents a welcome emphasis on outcomes and progress, but this isn’t reflected in the compliance and paperwork requirements that are needed in order to comply with the apprenticeship rules. It feels as though the point is being missed.
The wrong focus
There is a disproportionate amount of evidence collected at the start of the apprenticeship to demonstrate that an apprentice exists, is eligible and is entering into a genuine job at the start of an apprenticeship. This emphasis on existence and eligibility shifts the focus away from the ultimate goal of apprenticeships: to support a diverse workforce to gain the skills they need to excel in the workplace.
Data is only useful if it’s being actively used to improve the learning and experiential parts of an apprenticeship and to iterate the offer being provided. Let’s focus on supporting apprentices to develop the foundational skills they need to become future leaders.
It’s not only training providers who are frustrated with the mountains of paperwork required throughout the apprenticeship process. Employers find this a burden, too, and continually ask us why there is so much duplication and repetition.
The sector has been slow to move on from wet signatures and physical paperwork. A lack of clarity on what is allowed here has not helped.
On top of the requirement to provide health and safety certificates, proof of employer’s liability insurance and several other policies, employers also need to provide a signed commitment statement with their learning provider, another with their apprentice and in some cases with the parent of the apprentice. They then need to add the apprentice on to the Apprenticeship Service and re-confirm their details in the system, adding even more steps to the process. Creating this additional burden for employers reduces the appeal of apprenticeships and adds to the perception that they are old-fashioned and irrelevant.
The introduction of apprenticeship standards is a progressive move and presents a huge opportunity for experimentation in terms of how the learning experience is delivered, moving away from detailed assessment reports and eight-week reviews and focusing on learning, teaching and progress. All of which are far more important than a simple checklist of what must be documented.
What will hold apprenticeships back is if the wider sector remains wedded to frameworks that are convenient to deliver and retaining analogue processes that are generally clunky for apprentice and employer alike.
At our company WhiteHat – which matches talent with apprenticeship opportunities – we are digitising this process, making it far less onerous for employers, apprentices, and our internal team. The role that technology can play in helping to streamline these processes is huge – secure signatures, digitally populated forms that can be easily completed on smartphones and online learning platforms and apps that can house fantastic content and log evidence of progression.
There are some frustrating speed bumps, but we remain optimistic. These issues shouldn’t obscure the great opportunity that exists now to drive better apprenticeships that are more engaging, more impactful and provide a better experience for all parties.
If the ESFA can adapt and provide greater flexibility on process and how providers measure important metrics, there will be no excuse for the wider sector not to provide a better experience. If the system remains focused on tick-box inputs as an easy proxy for performance, apprenticeships will struggle to achieve their intended outcomes.
Euan Blair is founder and CEO of WhiteHat. This article was co-written by Sophie Ruddock, the company’s head of operation