Nick Linford and his colleagues at the excellent FEWeek appear to have uncovered a rather worrying trend in relation to pre-requirements for some Apprenticeship programmes being offered by some FE colleges and private training providers (PTPs). Specifically, candidates for certain frameworks are required to have a GCSE Grade A-C in English (and sometimes Maths as well) before being considered for a place on an Apprenticeship programme.
Of course one could argue that as Apprenticeships become more widely accepted as a genuine alternative to an academic University education , then supply and demand will dictate the level of pre-entry qualifications and that the best FE institutions will, like their counterparts in the HE sector, only offer places to the best qualified students.
That may well be the case, but one of the colleges demanding GCSE A-C grades as pre-qualification is a Midlands college, which is still reeling from a disastrous Ofsted Inspection a few months ago which classified their Apprenticeship programme as “inadequate”. So why would such a provider suddenly feel they could attract only the best-qualified candidates and could ignore the 400,000 young people without these qualifications?
I suspect that the answer may sadly be related to Functional Skills (FS) which are now a compulsory component of all Apprenticeship frameworks. However, students who already hold a Grade A-C in the relevant subject (English or Maths) are exempt from the Functional Skills equivalent.
Whilst the introduction of FS into Apprenticeships was a controversial move, most experts in the field now agree that it has significantly raised the value of the programme and unlike its Key Skills predecessor, it is giving students a proper foundation in these basic skills together with a genuine understanding as to how these skills can be effectively used in the workplace. However, equally it is a far more challenging course to deliver than Key Skills and requires significant amounts of contact time with a properly qualified tutor. Whilst funding levels have increased, it is still a labour-intensive delivery programme and therefore certainly not the most profitable component of the Apprenticeship programme.
And thereby, I believe, lies the problem. Many providers have struggled to deliver FS effectively for a variety of reasons, not least their failure to invest in properly qualified staff and innovative delivery methods. By recruiting learners who have GCSE A-C grades, they no longer need to deliver FS and can focus on the more profitable and easier to deliver components of the Apprenticeship framework.
What Are The Consequences?
If this trend continues, there are two consequences. Firstly, almost half of the current 1 million GREETs (Getting Ready for Education, Employment and Training) will be excluded from directly applying for Apprenticeships. That seems grossly unfair and a betrayal of the principles of Apprenticeships which were about offering an alternative career opportunity and a second chance for young people without a portfolio of GCSEs
Secondly, our experience having delivered FS successfully in many large corporate businesses, is that employers much prefer this qualification to the equivalent GCSEs. The latter are academic qualifications which are taught in a way that is designed to get students through an exam (sadly because that seems to be the key way in which we measure school performance). Functional Skills, on the other hand enable learners to apply their knowledge to a variety of real workplace situations and to understand how they can adapt it to new situations which they might meet in the future. As such it is far more relevant as a real vocational qualification and of far more value both to the learner and the employee.
I passionately believe that Apprenticeships should remain open to as many people as possible, no matter what their existing qualifications. We have proved consistently that it is possible to successfully train learners to achieve a Level 2 in FS (equivalent to GCSE A-C grade) and we have seen those same learners progress further within their companies. It would be a real tragedy if that opportunity was lost to them.
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