The end of National Apprenticeship Week (NAW) is always a good time to reflect on the current status of the scheme – the successes that can be built on and the issues that need to be addressed. This year is a particular important one because the government chose NAW to launch its long-awaited response to the Richard Report on the future of Apprenticeships.
So first the good news. Apprenticeships are clearly continuing to gain in popularity Applications are up by over 40% year-on-year and over 13,000 new Apprenticeships were announced by employers during NAW. However, there is still clearly a lot of work to be done if Apprenticeships are going to gain widespread acceptance as a genuine alternative to University. A recent survey by the CIPD amongst parents showed that only 20% viewed Apprenticeships as being on a par with a University degree. Similarly, over 80% of respondents felt that schools were not doing enough to promote the Apprenticeship route. These are statistics which we urgently need to turn around. There is clearly now insufficient careers advice in schools and that to some extent must be driving parent perception. If parents still see University as being the pinnacle to aim for and Apprenticeships as a route for those without the qualifications (or money!) to get into University, then we will be constantly fighting an uphill battle.
There is no doubt as well that the Apprenticeship “brand” has been tarnished over the last few years by a number of large training providers who whilst not doing anything illegal, have stretched the funding rules to the limits and provided “Apprenticeships” which in effect were little more than validation of existing skills and training, to thousands of current employees in supermarkets and call centres. The government have made it clear that this practice will end and this has to be very good news because it means that funding and Apprenticeship places can be allocated to people who really need them.
There are two other commitments in the Richard Review response which I fully support and which I believe will help to raise the status of Apprenticeships. Firstly, the government clearly wants employers to be the beating heart of the programme. But Apprenticeships will now be targeted at a skilled job which involves substantial new training and most importantly is seen as the first step in a career and a genuine opportunity to progress. Once people see that Apprentices can progress just as quickly as graduates into more senior roles within an organisation, then we really will start to have parity between the two career routes.
Secondly the government is committed to making progression to Level 2 Functional Skills in English and Maths, a compulsory component of all Apprenticeship programmes from August 2014, thereby guaranteeing that all new Apprentices have the equivalent of GCSE A- C Grades in maths and English. Whilst I welcome this development and believe it is the only way we can seriously address the current skills crisis in the UK, there is no doubt that it will run into opposition from traditional training providers many of whom are still struggling to deliver successful Level 1 Functional Skills programmes.
Our experience suggests that the gap between Level 1 and Level 2 Functional Skills is significant and it will require dedicated support from fully trained practitioners to enable many learners to reach this level. Whilst we have already been successfully delivering significant numbers of Level 2 qualifications, we are not resting on our laurels and we are continuing to develop both our delivery methods and the skills of our people to ensure that we are ready for August 2014. Many training providers left it far too late to prepare for the introduction of Functional Skills and it is vitally important that any organisation with a large Apprenticeship programme checks whether their provider is “Level 2 Ready” now rather than in 12 months time.
So there will be some significant challenges ahead in the next 12 months, but I am very confident that if the Richard Review proposals are fully implemented, then Apprenticeships will continue to grow in quality and standing and finally be seen as the important career alternative which they clearly represent.
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