At six months old, the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) is still in its infancy. Unpacked boxes are scattered around its London office. Even the fellow tenants at the premises it shares in the heart of Victoria appear to be unfamiliar with their new neighbour: a piece of paper bearing the words “Institute for Apprenticeships Fridge” has been stuck to the refrigerator door to ward off any intruders.
The mission of the institute, which has a budget just shy of £10 million for 2017-18, is simple: “ensuring high-quality apprenticeship standards”. At present, it has three main jobs: approving and supporting the development of apprenticeship standards; advising on funding levels for different standards and quality assuring the final assessments taken by apprentices.
To date, more than 80 employees have been hired. Once the IfA’s remit expands next spring to oversee technical education, its workforce will number more than 120.
Among them, eventually, will be its first permanent chief executive. The role was advertised in April, but no appointment has yet been made. Serial senior civil servant Peter Lauener holds the post on a temporary basis, having postponed his retirement until a leader is found.
In the meantime, the public face of the IfA is its chair, Antony Jenkins. And the former Barclays chief executive has a big job on his hands. The institute’s first six months have been dogged with questions about its long-term future.
Doomed to failure?
Shadow FE minister Gordon Marsden has repeatedly questioned whether the IfA has the resources necessary to carry out its functions effectively.
And former Department for Education ministerial adviser Tom Richmond has even recently argued in the pages of Tes that the fledgling institute could already be “doomed to failure”.
In his first interview as IfA chair, Jenkins acknowledges that there is much work still to be done.
“This country has had a long history of attempting to create an effective system of apprenticeships and technical education,” he says. “And many of those, if not all of those initiatives, have failed. The track record, looking back, is not particularly encouraging.
“I feel very strongly that the structure that we have in place now is the right structure, and that we have the right resources in place to deliver. And, with the right time, discipline and focus, we will achieve the objective of having a viable system of apprenticeships and technical education.”
A number of “very strong candidates” will be interviewed for the CEO role after the summer break, Jenkins says, with the post to be filled “by the end of the year, probably sooner”.
If he is frustrated by the delays, he does not show it. “I personally believe it is always worth taking the time to get the very best person for the role,” he explains, “and that’s what we’re doing.”
Passion for training
State-school educated in Blackburn, Jenkins went on to study philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford. After graduating, he made a name for himself in the world of finance, first at Barclays and then at Citigroup. After 13 years living and working in New York, he returned to the UK in 2006 to run Barclaycard.
In 2009, Jenkins became chief executive of Barclays’ retail and business banking group, and then group chief executive in 2012. His rise was ended abruptly when he was sacked in 2015, with investors reportedly concerned about the bank’s profitability. Sir Michael Rake, deputy chairman at the time, paid tribute’ to Jenkins’ “significant achievements”, but said a “new set of skills were required”.
The next year, Jenkins founded 10x Future Technologies, which he says offers a new technology platform to streamline banking. Responding to technological advancements, he observes, is crucial: “If we can’t reskill our citizens fast enough, I think we could face some really serious social problems down the line.”
Jenkins’ passion for training was sparked by overseeing the launch of Barclays’ own apprenticeship programme.
“I was incredibly impressed by the impact that you could have on learners. But not just on them: on their families, on their communities, and also on the employer.
“Apprentices are highly talented, committed, loyal colleagues who do great things for [their] organisation.”
When he was approached about chairing the IfA, Jenkins felt the role was a “perfect fit”.
“I really do believe that skilling is one of the few levers we have as a society that can really change the trajectory of the lives of our citizens during the next five, 10, 15, 20 years,” he adds.
Jenkins estimates that his role at the IfA typically takes up between one and two days a week. “I have a fascinating and large workload,” he adds with a wry smile.
One of the biggest issues to be addressed is the transition from detailed apprenticeship frameworks to simpler standards set by groups of employers. The process is moving more slowly than had been anticipated.
Between August and January, there were 7,500 starts on standards, compared to 251,300 on frameworks. Last month, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) confirmed that it was postponing the withdrawal of the next wave of frameworks to “maximise stability” in the sector.
For Jenkins, the move is logical. “I don’t think it’s a sign of anything other than being deliberate in how we create the right, effective mechanisms – this is very complex work,” he stresses.
Jenkins is similarly relaxed about delays associated with another key feature of the apprenticeship standards: end-point assessments. Under the new system, apprentices are graded at the end of the programme, but concerns have repeatedly been raised about cases where apprentices have been employed without a final assessment being in place.
Jenkins points out that 99 per cent of apprentices currently on standards now have an assessment provider in place: “For the remaining 1 per cent, there will be one in place by the time they complete their apprenticeship, so we have no concerns about that.”
Another controversial element of the new breed of apprenticeship is the requirement that 20 per cent of the programme should consist of off-the-job training. The Association of Employment and Learning Providers has repeatedly called for more flexibility. In July, it submitted evidence from employers such as Toni and Guy and Pret a Manger, calling for the rule to be changed.
Jenkins concedes that the requirement is “quite strict”. But should it be scrapped? He pauses. “If there’s a strong case for that, I would hope the system would be flexible enough to respond to that, given that the system is designed to meet the needs of employers. On the other hand, if people simply want to diminish the training requirement, that’s not acceptable.”
Jenkins also admits to having concerns about how the organisations responsible for overseeing apprenticeships – Ofsted, Ofqual, the ESFA, Hefce, the Quality Assurance Agency and the IfA – work together.
“What I’ve always worried about is that we could all individually be discharging our responsibilities, but the system itself won’t work,” he says. The creation of the combined “quality alliance” of these bodies is designed to combat this risk.
One issue Jenkins is less worried about is the relatively low number of young people embarking on apprenticeships. In recent years, barely a quarter of apprenticeship starts have been among 16- to 18-year-olds, with critics warning that the majority of the programme’s expansion since 2010 has been among older people already in work, rather than helping young people into employment.
But this, the IfA chair counters, is not necessarily a problem. “I think apprenticeships are good for everybody. For anybody who wants to increase their skill level, to become more productive, to become more employable, to do more rewarding work.
“I wouldn’t necessarily want to deprioritise any one group at the expense of another. But I do think we’re going to have to make sure everyone is benefiting from the system.”
Despite the scale of the difficulties ahead for apprenticeships, Jenkins remains unfazed. “Is it very challenging? Absolutely. Is there a lot of work to do? Absolutely. Will we get it done? Yes we will.”