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A few weeks ago, our local supermarket was taken over by Waitrose. The transformation was remarkable. Apart from the fact that the car park was now totally jammed, the whole experience of shopping suddenly became a pleasure. The huge display of flowers in the foyer, the array of fresh-baked bread as you walked through the door, happy smiling staff who genuinely seemed eager to help, the wide well-lit aisles and an astonishing range of fresh products which somehow seemed to be exactly what you were looking for. And yes, it was all more expensive than the previous occupants (who will remain nameless to protect the guilty), but clearly customers were prepared to accept that in return for quality and great service.
The secret of Waitose’s success is summed up in the series of adverts currently appearing in the glossy magazines. Next to a photo of the smiling Waitrose employee runs the tag line:

“Everyone who works at Waitrose owns Waitrose and when you own something you care a little more”

I hope that the opponents of the Reform programme which puts ownership of Apprenticeships into the hands of employers, will take note of the Waitrose success story because it is not an isolated case. In the many varied leadership roles which I have undertaken throughout my career, I learnt very quickly that people are engaged, not by telling them what to do, but by giving them full responsibility to deliver a successful task or project. That’s a philosophy which is shared almost universally and has been one of the most fundamental changes in management style over the last few decades.

Change Is Not An Easy Process

Of course, currently Apprenticeships are mainly “owned” by training providers and I think that much of the opposition to the proposed changes is based on their reluctance to let go of their baby. That of course is a perfectly natural reaction. Handing over control can be a scary process. “How will they cope without my direction and input?” you will ask and invariably the answer is “very well indeed” as they develop their own ideas and processes.
The challenge for us as training providers is to adapt to this new role. It will no longer be down to us to “run” or “own” Apprenticeship programmes. We become coaches, mentors and expert advisors, helping to facilitate a process rather than manage it directly. That role, whilst very different is if anything even more important and valuable than trying to run the whole Apprenticeship programme ourselves.
We have worked in this way with a number of different companies over the last few years and in all honesty, I can say that it is a far more rewarding and satisfying experience than trying to run an entire programme on behalf of an employer who has no real interest other than the opportunity to get some “free” training out of the government.

Trailblazers Are Showing The Way

Over 400 companies of all sizes have already signed up to the Trailblazers scheme which will lead the Reform programme and in September, hundreds more will join them. Many of those companies will be new to the Apprenticeship project and many more will be new to the whole concept of “ownership”. Training providers have a fantastic opportunity to provide the support which these companies will need and that is where our focus should be rather than on desperately trying to retain control of the programme.
These reforms aren’t perfect by any means and there will be many issues to address, particularly with regard to support for “micro-companies”. However if the UK Apprenticeship programme gains the same esteem as Waitrose and is held in the same high regard by its “customers”, I for one will be delighted because then we will genuinely have a world-class programme and that is something we all want, whatever our different views about the best way to get there.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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When, in 2012, the government first signalled their intention to launch the Traineeship programme, I and many others in the sector gave the proposal a warm welcome. With its focus on employability skills and English and maths linked to a genuine period of structured work experience, I felt that it provided an ideal opportunity for young people to reach the first rung on the job ladder whilst at the same time acting as a stepping stone on to the Apprenticeship pathway.

The news this week that in the first six months of the scheme, only 3,300 people have started on the programme is therefore hugely disappointing. With unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds remaining above 900, 000, this level of uptake is going to have very little impact.

The government’s response is that the programme “is off to a good start”. If that’s the case, I dread to think how they define failure and if a potentially valuable programme is not to fall by the wayside, we need to understand very quickly why less than 130 people per week are taking up these opportunities.

I think the problems can be divided into 3 areas

  1. A Simple Idea Which Quickly Became Complicated

One of the great benefits of the Traineeships when the idea was first floated, was their apparent simplicity. This meant that potentially the scheme would be easily understood by employers and could be implemented quickly. However, as the proposals took shape, various caveats and conditions started to appear and the seed of confusion was sown.

Firstly the government decided that initially, Traineeships would be limited to 16-18 year olds thereby ensuring that people who had probably been out of work for the longest period were denied entry. Although the restriction was withdrawn, the damage had been done. Meanwhile, confusing rules were put in place around the rights of learners on the programme to continue to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA). Up until a few weeks ago, 19+ learners faced losing their JSA if they did more than 16 hours training a week. A similar rule limiting 18 year olds to just 12 hours training a week before losing their JSA, remains in place.

Confused? Well, there’s more to come because JAS claimants are currently  limited to an 8 week job placement period, although this can be extended to 12 weeks if a job is imminent

  1. Do Employers Know About Traineeships?

With such a plethora of eligibility restrictions, it’s hardly surprising if employers are hesitant about embracing the scheme. But recent research by NIACE (https://www.trainingjournal.com/articles/opinion/more-visibility-traineeships-essential) suggests that the majority of employers simply don’t know that the programme exists. Whilst many saw the potential benefits, not a single one of the 14 employers interviewed by NIACE was aware of the programme.  Clearly this represents a huge communication gap and one that has to be addressed rapidly if the whole project is not to become yet another failed initiative.

  1. Is There Enough Clear Water Between Traineeships and Intermediate Apprenticeships?

Whilst we all want to encourage SMEs to embrace both Traineeships and Apprenticeships, ultimately the success of the initiative will be dependent on the response of the large employers. If employers such as McDonalds, BT and Rolls-Royce who have won widespread recognition for the quality of their Apprenticeship programmes and train thousands of apprentices every year, were to make similar commitments to Traineeships, they would provide the impetus that the programme so badly needs.

We have to ask therefore why few if any have chosen to do so.  I suspect that the main reason is that Traineeships simply don’t fit into their overall strategy.  Many of these companies have proven routes into their Apprenticeship programme. In effect, they have created their own “stepping stones” and simply don’t require the Traineeship proposition.

Arguably, there is also potentially a considerable overlap between Traineeships and Level 2 Apprenticeships (similar English and Maths components for example). You have to question whether a learner who may have reached an acceptable level of competency during a 12 week job placement and also achieved a Level 2 Functional Skills qualification in English and Maths, would gain much more from then starting afresh on an Intermediate Apprenticeship programme. Personally I doubt it and I suspect that many major employers have reached a similar conclusion.

A Four Point Plan To Kick-Start Traineeships

As a born optimist who firmly believes that the difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is simply a question of how you use them, I’m keeping the faith with Traineeships and still believe that they can play a key role in tackling the skills crisis. But to achieve that, we need some new thinking and a new plan. So for starters, here’s my proposal:

  1. Drop the 12 hour per week training restriction on 18 year-old JAS claimants. It serves no purpose
  2. Similarly, drop the 8 week restriction on job placements for JAS claimants and encourage employers to offer a minimum of 12 weeks. Two months is simply not long enough for a young person to get to grips with the complexities of the work environment
  3. Challenge the 400+ employers who have signed up to the Employer Ownership Trailblazers Scheme to also champion Traineeships  and produce a one-page plan to make the programme a success in their sector
  4. Reposition Traineeships as modules within a Level 2 Apprenticeship.  Learners who successfully complete a Traineeship would have the added motivation of knowing that they were also well on their way to completing an Apprenticeship programme

Could it work?  I don’t see why not. So let’s stop kidding ourselves about the programme being “off to a good start”. It clearly isn’t and we need to take corrective action now, not in 12 months’ time when it will be too late.

 

 

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

 

 

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A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to speak at The Voice of Apprenticeships conference held in the impressive London Film Museum. The conference itself is a remarkable event in that it is organised by a single, hugely committed lady – Lindsay McCurdy, and is the product of a Linked-In group called Apprenticeships 4 England which now has over 17,000 members. It speaks volumes about the power of social media that a Government Minister and a wide range of distinguished speakers put aside time to attend such an event.

My presentation, like several others, focused on the proposed reforms to the Apprenticeship programme which are currently in the early stages off implementation. Whilst the deep concerns which I expressed about the proposal to replace Functional Skills with GCSE’s within Apprenticeships were clearly supported by delegates to the conference, I fear I was in a rather small minority in my general support for the reform proposals.

Apprenticeships Have To Change

My argument is that in order to stay relevant and to transform Apprenticeships into world-class qualifications, the programmes have to continually evolve and develop. Giving employers the responsibility for managing Apprenticeship training and funding is simply another stage in that process of evolution. Moreover, this shift of power from provider to employer will open up huge opportunities for those providers who do not currently have direct access to funding but have to subcontract and often pay extortionate “administration fees” of up to 30% of the total funding, for the privilege of doing so. Employer Ownership will create a level playing field whereby all providers, no matter what their size will be able to negotiate directly with any employer and agree a commercial rate for delivering their training requirements. Training bids will be won by the provider who can best convince an employer that they can deliver high quality training, not by the provider who happens to have a large amount of government funding in their pockets.

What Will Be The Impact Of The Changes?

Opponents of the Employer Ownership proposals are predicting a catastrophic fall in the number of Apprenticeships if the scheme proceeds. However, I cannot help but experience an acute sense of déjà vu. when I hear these arguments. 2-3 years ago, exactly the same dire warnings were being issued about the impact of Functional Skills. We were told then that there was no need to change, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Key Skills and that if they were replaced by Functional Skills, it would be the end of the Apprenticeship programme.

But of course we know now that Key Skills had failed totally to raise levels of maths and English competency. Hardly surprising really for what was basically a tick-box exercise linked to a Multi Choice test in which you could achieve 25% simply by answering questions randomly. Moreover, the introduction of Functional Skills did not result in the death of the Apprenticeship programme but instead boosted its overall quality and gave learners a meaningful qualification and a real sense of achievement.

Let’s Look To The Future, Not To The Past

So whilst I retain concerns about certain aspects of the Employer Ownership proposals, in general I support the changes. It seems totally appropriate to me that the people who employ apprentices and who ultimately understand far more about their organisations’ training needs than providers, should be the driving force behind the programme. Our role as training providers is to support them and provide a high-quality service. That’s where our focus should be – not on the daily grind to secure sufficient funding.

Currently only 13% of UK companies participate in Apprenticeship programmes. That number is far too low and I am hopeful that the planned reforms will address that issue. With that in mind, it is hugely encouraging to see that over 400 organisations have already signed as Trailblazers who will lead the reform programme. They include many smaller companies and many who are clearly new to the Apprenticeship concept. Employers are the only people who can impact on Apprenticeship numbers and by giving them the responsibility to run their own programmes, I am confident that they will rise to the challenge.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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Last week, I attended a conference organised by the Association of Employment and Learning providers (AELP) to debate the Apprenticeship Reform proposals which are in the early stages of implementation. The centrepiece of the plan is to put employers (rather than providers) at the heart of the Apprenticeship programme whilst at the same time giving them responsibility for managing the funding process.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these proposals have met with a less than enthusiastic response from many Private Training Providers (PTPs) and colleges and their views were encapsulated in an impassioned speech by John Hyde, the chairman of a large PTP who argued vigorously for the maintenance of the status quo and the retention of the funding pot by providers. In essence, his argument was that the current system ain’t broke and therefore doesn’t need fixing, that employers don’t want to take on these responsibilities and that Apprenticeship numbers will plummet. He also believed that the system would be wide open to corruption.

However, whilst I respect the sincerity with which these views are held, I believe they are fundamentally wrong and would therefore like to set out an alternative view.

Why Employers Should Be In Charge

Let’s be clear. This is already happening. Many of the largest and most successful Apprenticeship programmes in the UK are run and managed by individual employers – BT, Rolls-Royce, BAE, Whitbread, Barchester and many more operate excellent award-winning programmes. Moreover, the first two phases of the Employer Ownership Pilot attracted bids from hundreds of employers  and over 70 signed up to the  Trailblazers project (the first phase of the Reform programme) So the suggestion that employers do not want to run these programmes is simply not supported by the evidence.

We are fortunate to work with employers who “own” their own programmes, who totally support the Apprenticeship project and who have invested huge sums of money in the programmes, believing them to be a key component of their overall talent management strategy.

Sadly, I know there are many other employers who have been “sold” the benefits of an Apprenticeship programme on the basis that it is “free” training, paid for by the government.  Because they have no real involvement in the programme, there is no commitment and critically, little support for the learners. All employers are expected to contribute 50% towards the costs of Apprenticeship training, but in reality most employers in this latter group fail to do so. The government has indicated that they intend to make this 50% cash contribution compulsory and I accept that if this happens, many of the employers in this group will withdraw from the programme.

But is that such a bad thing? If we genuinely want a world-class Apprenticeship programme, we have to change the culture that Apprenticeships represent “free” training from the government.  Far better surely to accept a short-term reduction in overall numbers and provide further support to those businesses who support the programme not just in name but in hard cash.

The Opportunity for Providers

I do not buy the argument that Apprenticeship Reform will be a disaster for Training Providers. On the contrary, I believe it represents a huge opportunity. At present, only a small number of private training providers have direct access to funding from the Skills Funding Agency. The majority of providers have to be content to pick up the crumbs via subcontracting arrangements, often paying anything up to 30% commission to the prime contract holder simply for the privilege of gaining access to funding.

Employer ownership of Apprenticeships will remove the inequities of this system at a stroke. Any training provider will be able to tender for business with an employer and agree a fee based on a commercial arrangement with the company. Moreover, knowing that the company will be contributing 50% towards the costs, they should be able to negotiate far higher fees than they do at the moment.

So far from representing a barrier, I believe this represents a sizeable opportunity. PTPs will now be operating on a level playing field and will be able to access an employer base which had previously been denied them. Winning new business will be based on quality of provision rather than availability of funding.

So Why Only A Cautious Welcome

I have no doubt whatsoever of the need for reform of the Apprenticeship programme. Those that say “It ain’t broke, so it doesn’t need fixing” conveniently forget about some of the major issues which have afflicted the sector over the last 12 months. Since these are subject to SFA investigations and ongoing criminal proceedings, I cannot comment on individual cases but we all know who they are. Moreover, currently less than 13% of UK employers participate in the Apprenticeship programme. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo.

But on a more positive note, a world-class programme requires a commitment to constant change and development. If we refuse to accept the need for change, then we will stagnate and watch on the side-lines as the rest of the world rushes past us. Only a year ago, many so-called Apprenticeships were nothing more than a 6 month “sheep dip” with the late-lamented Key Skills as an almost derisory maths and English component. We have moved on from there and we now have the chance to move further. We all now accept that there is a major skills crisis in the UK and building a world-class Apprenticeship programme could potentially go a long way to tackling that problem.

However, whilst I support the principle, I still have serious concerns about the detail of the government’s approach. I’m yet to be convinced that grading of Apprenticeships (Pass, Merit, Distinction) will have any real benefit and I am bitterly opposed to the planned replacement of Functional Skills by A-C grade GCSEs in maths and English.  But those are issues which we can continue to debate. In the meantime, I believe we should resist the temptation to make a poor impersonation of King Canute, embrace the principles of Employer Ownership and rise to the challenge of developing the best Apprenticeship programme on the planet.

 

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

 

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The results from the latest Organisation for Economic Co-operation an d Development (OECD) Literacy and Numeracy Survey published towards the end of last year, makes for depressing reading. In the critical 16-24 age category out of 24 of the most highly developed nations surveyed, the UK ranked 22nd for Literacy and 21st for Numeracy. Moreover, we were the only country in the survey where the age group nearing retirement performed better than the 16-24 group. So whilst other nations progress, we appear to be going backwards.

Even more depressing were the responses of our politicians. These seem to fall into two camps:

The survey methodology is questionable and the results aren’t valid (Labour)

• It’s all the fault of the previous government (Coalition)

In fact, neither response is valid. These results simply echo many previous surveys which have highlighted the fact that we face a skills crisis in the UK and the problem has been there for the last 20 years, so no political party can escape responsibility.

20 years ago these figures would have been of interest but arguably little value. However, today we operate in a global economy and the competition for skills is as fierce as the competition for business. Nothing could demonstrate this issue more clearly than the situation at Dysons. Sir James Dyson is arguably one of our most successful entrepreneurs. His company have just issued another excellent set of results with both revenue and profits up by nearly 20% and if the reaction of my wife is anything to go by, his new hand-held cleaner is going to sell like hot cakes.

As a result, Dysons are looking to recruit more engineers, split between their UK headquarters and their plants in Malaysia and Singapore. Sir James reckons he’ll have no problem recruiting in the Far East, but will struggle to find the 300 people he needs in the UK. Even more worrying is the fact that he says he has the technology and ideas that would enable him to recruit a further 2000 people in the UK if he could only find people with the relevant skills.

Time For Action – Not Just Words

So what are we doing to address this crisis? Well, the government will point to changes in the curriculum, more robust examinations and a focus on basic skills but I am not convinced that this will have the impact they are hoping for. We are in serious danger of relying upon “exams” as the sole measure of performance rather than a useful indicator of progress. The Council for Science and Technology, which provides strategic advice to the government, have recently warned that practical experiments in science are being dropped in favour of concentrating on exam preparation. As the council says, this would be like “studying literature without reading books”.

At the same time, the government is proposing to publish “earnings tables” which will rank future earning potential against different subjects. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see this working either. Whilst teenagers may be concerned about their future job prospects, I don’t believe they lie awake at night pondering whether they will earn more by studying Maths instead of French. I became a scientist not because I thought it would make me rich beyond my wildest dreams, but because I had great teachers in the subjects, enjoyed experiments and most importantly, my mates were all doing the same subjects.

Do We Need To Re-engineer Our Approach to Skills?

So what should we being doing? Clearly the basic building blocks of English and Maths have to be in place and few people would disagree that pupils should continue to study these subjects if they fail to achieve a decent GCSE grade first time round. However, for whatever reason, these young people are likely to have had a negative experience of English and Maths and probably see themselves as failures at least in these subjects. Simply subjecting them to more of the same is unlikely to have any impact. As an old mentor of mine used to say – “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”. Unless we radically rethink the learning experience, we will be in danger of producing failing 17 year-olds rather than failing 16 year-olds.

So we need to find new ways of encouraging young people to engage with these subjects. That means using technology such as mobile which they are familiar and delivering the learning in an innovative way which provides understanding rather than simply knowledge and which relates the subjects to the workplace in which young people will hopefully be working.

I believe that Functional Skills could be the answer. Not surprising you might say from a company which specialises in this area, but the pressure for Functional Skills is not coming from training providers, it is being led by employers who see the qualification as being far more relevant to the workplace and therefore of more value than the academically focused GCSEs.

Whatever steps we are going to take to address the skills crisis that prevents one of our best entrepreneurs from recruiting more UK staff, we have to act now. Tweaking the exam system and publishing “earnings tables” isn’t going to solve the problem. We need a fundamental rethink of the way we develop a workforce with the appropriate skills if we are genuinely going to compete against the world.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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A couple of weeks ago, the government published its Apprenticeship Reform Implementation Plan. The plan was in response to the recommendations made in the excellent Richard Review. The latter is a must-read document for anyone who has an interest in vocational training. It is concise (just 19 pages ), well- constructed and easy to read. As such, it’s a wonderful antidote to the usual verbose, tedious and seemingly never-ending tracts written by faceless mandarins and which normally comprise a government “Review”.

Implementing The Richard Review

In essence, the Richard Review recommends that employers should be at the heart of an Apprenticeship programme whose quality and standing should continue to improve. Whilst some commentators have expressed concerns that employers should have such a powerful role in the programme, I wholeheartedly welcome the findings of the report. If Apprenticeships are going to continue to develop into a genuine alternative career path to academic training, then it makes sense that employers, who understand their business sector and their future skills requirements, should be playing a central role. As such, I applaud the government’s decision to implement the recommendations in full.

GCSEs Are Not The Only Answer

However (and there is a huge however coming up here), I am deeply concerned that the government has made a massive blunder with regards to future Maths and English requirements for would-be Apprentices. Few people would deny that we have a basic skills crisis in the UK. The most recent government data showed that nearly half the adult working population have the numeracy levels required by an 11 year old and external data such as the recent OEDC survey, placed the UK close to the bottom in numeracy and literacy skills amongst the top 24 developed countries in the world.

Academic v Vocational Careers

Clearly we have to change this situation if we are to remain competitive in the global marketplace, but equally, it’s essential that the changes we make will have a real impact. As a starting point, we need to be clear that young people now have a clear choice when it comes to drawing up a career plan. They can go down an Academic route which will take them via A-Levels through to University or they can go down a Vocational route whereby they develop skills and experience (probably via an Apprenticeship framework) through on-job training.
These two routes are very different and as such require an individual approach to basic skill development. Until recently, this appeared to be government thinking as well as mine. GCSE’s in Maths and English were the appropriate qualifications for the Academic pathway whilst Functional Skills provided an alternative (but equal) qualification for people taking the Vocational option.

However in the last few weeks, the government appears to have rapidly changed its position. In the Apprenticeship Reform Implementation Plan, they state quite clearly that once the reformed GCSEs are introduced, it is:

“Our ambition that all apprentices will use GCSEs rather than Functional Skills to meet the English and maths requirements in Apprenticeships”

This is a hugely significant change in policy and one which could potentially prove to be disastrous. Moreover, It seems to have been implemented with very little consultation with employers (who let’s remember are now supposed to be the beating heart of Apprenticeship programmes)

The Functional Skills Alternative

Functional Skills were brought in following the damning Wolf Report on standards of numeracy and literacy, as specific English and maths qualifications for learners taking a vocational career path. They have only been fully operational for a little over 12 months so as yet, there is no statistical data as to their impact. However, having delivered Functional Skills for nearly two years to a variety of large employers, all our evidence to date has been that they have been a huge success. Our clients report that their learners are more motivated (having achieved a real qualification as opposed to the worthless Key Skills), more likely to complete their Apprenticeship and more likely to continue their learning journey.

All of this could be put at risk by the government’s seeming obsession with GCSEs. Don’t get me wrong – the planned changes to GCSEs are timely and appropriate and will, I believe, bring about a desperately needed rise in standards. However, they are Academic qualifications and designed for learners choosing that path. Functional Skills on the hand, were specifically developed for learners taking the Vocational pathway. GCSEs are designed primarily for classroom learning over a minimum 12 month period whereas Functional Skills can be delivered in the workplace over a much more intense but shorter period. GCSEs are examined twice a year whereas Functional Skills exams can be taken at any time that best suits the learner.

Many of the learners we work with have failed their GCSEs in Maths and English. For whatever reason, the system of classroom learning failed to develop their skills in these key areas. Functional Skills has provided them with a lifeline and an opportunity to repair their confidence and show that they can apply these skills to many different work situations. Are we now to tell these young people that the only way they can complete an Apprenticeship in the future is if they return to the classroom environment and revert to an academic qualification in which they have already failed? I simply don’t believe that they will be prepared to do this and as such, the whole Apprenticeship project could be put at serious risk.

An Alternative Solution

So my message to the government is very clear. Accept that academic and vocational career paths are vastly different and require their own unique approach, assessment methods and qualifications. By all means seek to raise the standards for GCSEs but accept at the same time that they are an academic qualification designed for people on that career path. Functional Skills should not be side-lined into the Traineeship model, but should remain as the “gold standard” for learners on a vocational journey. To misquote Jeanette Winterson – GCSEs are not the only fruit.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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Apprenticeships are very much back in the limelight at the moment. The word has been sprayed around like confetti at the Party Conferences, whilst at the same time the SFA is investigating allegations of malpractice in the delivery of Apprenticeships by major providers and provisional figures released last week show that the overall number of Apprenticeship starts in 2013 has fallen compared with the previous year.

So What’s Going On?

Listening to politicians as they hurl themselves belatedly onto the Apprenticeship bandwagon, I sometimes think that they view the qualification not only as a panacea for all the economic problems in the UK, but as a cure for world poverty as well.

So let’s put things into perspective. Of the nearly ½ million Apprenticeships started in the 2011/12, over 63% were at the basic “Intermediate” level. These qualifications require the learner to demonstrate competence in their job role, be fully aware of their Employment Rights & responsibilities (ERR), pass some tests in underpinning knowledge associated with their job and finally to obtain Functional Skills qualifications in Maths & English.

Intermediate (Level 2) Apprenticeships represent an ideal path for disengaged young people to rediscover the value of learning but let’s not kid ourselves that they are anything more than that. The idea expressed in some quarters that this training can be compared to an undergraduate university course is flawed and if we continue to promote this thesis, we are in danger of devaluing a university education. This country needs well-trained graduates just as much as it needs a workforce with acceptable levels of basic Maths and English skills.

We also need to remind ourselves that in 2011/12, 40% of people who started a Level 2 Apprenticeship were over 25 years old. Whilst I am a great believer in life-long learning, I question how many of these people would fall into the new definition of “Apprentice” as defined by Doug Richard in his excellent 2012 Review.

Of course it is perfectly possible for Apprentices to progress to Higher level qualifications which are more akin to the rigours of a university course, but in 2011/12 only 9000 people started on such courses – a mere 0.6% of the total number of Apprenticeship starts. I will return to the whole issue of falling Apprenticeship starts in my next blog.

Overall, I remain a huge supporter of Apprenticeships. However, I do think it is important that we keep the programme in perspective. I do not want Apprenticeships to be seen as second-class qualifications, but equally I want to see them promoted as an alternative to university and not an equivalent. There is a danger at the moment that we are blurring the lines between those two words.

Finally, I hope that the trend towards Higher and Advanced Level Apprenticeships continues. Level 2 Apprenticeships are a great way to get on the first rung of the ladder and we should celebrate them for that. But what we should really be doing is encouraging successful Apprentices to continue their journey up the ladder. Once we do that, even some of the politician’s fantasies about their value may come true!

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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