Archive for September, 2012

If I were to put out a recruitment advert that said in the small print “People over the age of 25 need not apply”, I would quite rightly be hauled up for breaking numerous pieces of employment legislation.

Yet that is the message that the government appears to now be sending out with regards to Apprenticeships.  In the new contract year which started in August, Apprenticeship funding has very clearly been shifted towards learners under the age of 25 with particular emphasis on 16-18 year olds.

Whilst no-one has openly explained this strategy  change, I suspect that the main reason may be a knee-jerk response to the bad (but not always fair) publicity surrounding very large numbers of over 25 year old Apprenticeships being delivered by certain supermarket chains.

However, I believe this strategy is fundamentally flawed at both ends of the spectrum.

Firstly, I’m far from convinced that school leavers as young as 16 are ready for the rigours of an Apprenticeship, especially one which now quite rightly will last at least twelve months. Many of these young people have left the school system with a poor experience of education and very low skill levels.

These people need to rebuild their confidence and accustom themselves to the workplace environment through a programme of employability, workplace skill training or pre-Apprenticeship programmes.  Only then, perhaps after nine months or a year in work, should they start thinking about an Apprenticeship and a chance to develop a career.

I fear that someone in government believes that 16-18 Apprenticeships, with all the incentives that are being offered for their uptake, could be an effective way of massaging the NEET figures.  If so, that is totally misguided.  We will solve the NEET crisis by creating sustained growth and by changing our education system so that it prepares learners for a 21st century workplace and provides them with 21st century skills. We won’t solve the problem by simply trying to create short-term Apprenticeship opportunities for people are not yet ready for them.

Secondly, I am at a complete loss to understand why the government has dramatically reduced Apprenticeship funding for over 25 year olds.  With the development of higher-level qualifications, Apprenticeships can finally be positioned as a genuine alternative to university and an opportunity for learners to develop a good career without the millstone of student debt around their necks.

So why should that opportunity only be offered to people under the age of 25? The skills crisis in the UK is not limited to this cohort and if older people now want the chance to get back into learning, why should they be penalised?

Of course, no-one wants to see government funding being used by commercial organisations to fund mandatory training. But this isn’t the norm and one or two bad apples shouldn’t be used to redesign policy. We work with many organisations such as Whitbread, Spirit Group and Barchester Healthcare who invest huge sums of money into their Apprenticeship programmes. They don’t discriminate on the basis of age, so why should the government?

So I have two controversial proposals. First, let’s raise the minimum age for Apprenticeships to 17 (with evidence of formal “pre-Apprenticeship” training as standard) and second, let’s stop discriminating against older learners and reinstate appropriate funding levels for over 25 Apprentices. Who’s with me?



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When the words “We’ve got an Ofsted Inspection Coming Up” are first uttered, there are those that immediately descend into a state of abject terror and wonder how on earth they are going to satisfy the po-faced men from the ministry.

I have to admit to not being one of those lost souls. On the contrary, whilst I may have some concerns about the inspection process and its relevance to workplace skill development, I generally welcome Ofsted inspections as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of what we do and provide our people with a genuine sense of pride in what they have achieved.

So when our partners at Spirit Pub Company told us about their forthcoming first Ofsted inspection, we were delighted to have the opportunity to support them. Spirit are one of the leading pub companies in the UK with a nationwide portfolio of 765 outlets and famous brands such as Chef & Brewer and Flaming Grill and a focus on delivering a wide attractive choice of food and drink and a fantastic guest experience.

Spirit have developed a highly innovative Apprenticeship programme which they have fully embedded within their organisation. The current project comprises a Level 2 programme designed for their Team Players and an advanced programme for their Team Leaders. Since the start of the year, MindLeaders have been supporting learners on the advanced programme. Spirit are firmly committed to using the Apprenticeship framework as the basis for career progression and they have future plans to launch higher level programmes.

One of the reasons that we enjoy working with Spirit, is that it represents a genuine partnership. There are some organisations who simply outsource their entire vocational training requirements to an external supplier and simply check on progress now and then. That is definitely not the Spirit way. They retain total ownership of the Apprenticeship programme and as such have generated enormous commitment to a successful outcome throughout their organisation. Consequently, their learners are a joy to work with – they are highly motivated and fully up for the challenge.

That spirit (sorry!) of partnership certainly extended to the Ofsted inspection where we saw our role as being there to support Spirit throughout the process.  Initial Ofsted inspections are a bit like first dates and are often tricky affairs with each party trying subtly to find out about the other. They rarely results in a Grade above Level 3 so everyone involved in the process was delighted (although perhaps not surprised) when the final report, released a few days ago, resulted in a Grade 2 (“Good”) classification for the programme.

What was even more satisfying were the wide range of positive comments about the programmes. The inspectors noted the “high success rates” and the “good development of workplace skills”. They found learners to be “highly motivated and to have high aspirations” and commented on the “high standard of training and the knowledgeable and experienced training staff”. The Inspectors also felt that the strategic leadership and management of the programme is good and that Spirit had  “strong communication with their sub-contractors”

Of course, there were also a few areas to improve and we already have joint plans in place to tackle those.

All of this may of course sound a bit like an indulgent exercise in self-glorification. But that’s far from the case. This was Spirit’s Ofsted inspection and the credit should go to them. Our job, and that of our fellow training providers, was to support them.

However, what we can learn from this experience is that Ofsted inspections don’t have to be a damage limitation exercise. If you are confident in the quality of your programme and are fully prepared in every possible way, you can end up with a very positive outcome and a great opportunity to share the success throughout your organisation.

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With tuition fees rising, applications down and the annual scramble for places through the clearing system well underway , it seems an appropriate time to re-ignite the debate on the future of Higher Education.

Let’s start with yet another acronym: MOOC. If you haven’t heard it yet, then I’ll guarantee that you will do so within the next 12 months. It stands for ‘Massive Open Online Course’ and many people believe that it is the future of higher education. If it sounds like The Open University with a few bells and whistles, then think again. MOOCs are free to join (although there may be some charges for accreditation), and they are open to anyone – all you need is an internet connection.


MOOCs leverage the power of the internet to make available huge amounts of material and a wide choice of assignments and lectures are given by video. All work, thoughts and ideas are shared and collaboration is encouraged and indeed is a key part of the concept. Some of the most well-known universities in the USA are amongst the early MOOC adopters and I’m sure it won’t be long before UK universities take the plunge. Perhaps there’s still a chance for me to get a degree from Cambridge!

So will MOOCs transform higher education? Well they probably won’t work for courses where practical skill development is essential (I am not sure I would want to be treated by a doctor who only had a MOOC to their name), but they clearly represent a very exciting alternative to a bricks and mortar establishment. It will be fascinating to see how the concept develops over the next couple of years.

But if a MOOC is not for you, then an increasing number of commercial organisations are sponsoring selected young managers through degrees and other similar qualifications. It’s a real win/win situation. The learner achieves the same qualification as their peers whilst earning a salary and not being saddled with debt. The employer retains talented individuals within the company and can continue to develop their “soft skills” and their understanding of the business world.

Finally, the launch of high-level Apprenticeships provides learners with the final step in a career path which less than a decade ago could only have been reached via a university degree. I am a great believer in these higher-level qualifications because they provide a genuine counter to the argument that Apprenticeships are just an excuse for companies to draw down government funding to carry out training they would have done anyway. Higher-level Apprenticeships require sustained commitment from learners and considerable investment by their employers.

So, as bleak as it may seem. young people leaving school and seeking higher education actually have an array of choices available to them.  Of course, many will still opt for a traditional university education. But I suspect that alternative routes will increase rapidly over the next few years.

I also remain convinced that there are many ways to introduce technology into different areas of higher education. We feel we have made a start by developing a technological solution for the Functional Skills element of the Apprenticeship programme but quite clearly there will be other opportunities in the future where technology can add value to the expanding range of higher education qualifications. Happy MOOCing!

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