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