This blog was first published by Westminster Briefing and many thanks to them for doing so.
I have always believed that Apprenticeships were not so much about a qualification, but more an opportunity for young unemployed people not just to get a job, but to develop a successful career. Many of these people are, for whatever reason, carrying a negative experience of education and Apprenticeships have represented a chance to re-engage with them and show that learning can be both valuable and fun.
However, I always felt that the Apprenticeship ladder, now stretching through to Level 6 and 7 qualifications, was missing a vital first rung. Last year, when the government quite rightly implemented a series of quality improvements to the Apprenticeship framework, the bar was set even higher.
I was therefore delighted when at the end of 2012, the government announced a consultation process for the proposed Traineeship programme. Here I felt was that vital missing link and the key to unlocking the potential of Apprenticeships. The suggested content of the course – robust work experience, employability skills and a focus on Functional Skills in English and Maths – seemed totally appropriate. It was also clear that employers would become the beating heart of the programme. This was a proposal which seemed sensible and timely in light of the recently published Richard Review of Apprenticeships. Moreover, rather than the procrastination and continued delays which blighted the implementation of Functional Skills, the government seemed committed to having the programme up and running within a rapid if demanding timeframe.
So far, so good. But sadly, since the plans were published early in May this year, concerns and confusion have started to creep into what should have been a very straightforward concept. Firstly, the government chose to initially limit Traineeships to 16-18-year-old learners. Like many of my colleagues across the sector, I was bitterly disappointed by this decision. Whilst it barely seems fair to seek priorities amongst GREETS (I prefer “Getting Ready” to the negative connotation of NEETS – “Not in Education, Employment or Training”), surely it is the 19+ age group that is most vulnerable, most disillusioned and most likely to become unemployable without the appropriate skill training?
So when the government reversed this decision as part of the recent Spending Review, there was widespread relief and a feeling that a level playing field had now been set. It was therefore particularly frustrating to be presented with a revised Framework for Delivery document shortly thereafter. This was because the release of the framework revealed that eligibility criteria for 19-24 year olds would be more demanding than for 16-18 year olds, with learners in the former group deemed ineligible for Traineeship funding if they had already achieved a Level 2 qualification.
Leaving aside the flawed rationale behind these latest restrictions, which appear to suggest that for some reason 16-18 year olds are more likely to need to complete a traineeship, these differentials in learner eligibility will simply plant more confusion at a time when clarity is desperately needed. There is common agreement that employers are central to the success of Traineeships and our experience, having worked with a wide variety of major companies, is that they want programmes which are simple and straightforward to manage and which do not disadvantage specific groups of learners.
It is particularly ironic that these latest restrictions were made public the day after Nick Clegg announced a review of options available for 16-24 year olds, following the release of a report by the Institute of Public Policy Research. This found that the plethora of existing schemes was failing to deliver sustainable results. By adding unnecessary restrictions to Traineeships, I believe we run the danger of simply adding to this list.
Whilst I don’t believe that Traineeships will provide a cure-all-ills panacea for the problem of youth unemployment, I remain convinced that they could play a major role in providing young people with a genuine chance of a career. To do that we need a scheme which is easy to understand and manage and which treats all participants as equal, no matter what their age or previous achievements
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