A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to speak at The Voice of Apprenticeships conference held in the impressive London Film Museum. The conference itself is a remarkable event in that it is organised by a single, hugely committed lady – Lindsay McCurdy, and is the product of a Linked-In group called Apprenticeships 4 England which now has over 17,000 members. It speaks volumes about the power of social media that a Government Minister and a wide range of distinguished speakers put aside time to attend such an event.
My presentation, like several others, focused on the proposed reforms to the Apprenticeship programme which are currently in the early stages off implementation. Whilst the deep concerns which I expressed about the proposal to replace Functional Skills with GCSE’s within Apprenticeships were clearly supported by delegates to the conference, I fear I was in a rather small minority in my general support for the reform proposals.
Apprenticeships Have To Change
My argument is that in order to stay relevant and to transform Apprenticeships into world-class qualifications, the programmes have to continually evolve and develop. Giving employers the responsibility for managing Apprenticeship training and funding is simply another stage in that process of evolution. Moreover, this shift of power from provider to employer will open up huge opportunities for those providers who do not currently have direct access to funding but have to subcontract and often pay extortionate “administration fees” of up to 30% of the total funding, for the privilege of doing so. Employer Ownership will create a level playing field whereby all providers, no matter what their size will be able to negotiate directly with any employer and agree a commercial rate for delivering their training requirements. Training bids will be won by the provider who can best convince an employer that they can deliver high quality training, not by the provider who happens to have a large amount of government funding in their pockets.
What Will Be The Impact Of The Changes?
Opponents of the Employer Ownership proposals are predicting a catastrophic fall in the number of Apprenticeships if the scheme proceeds. However, I cannot help but experience an acute sense of déjà vu. when I hear these arguments. 2-3 years ago, exactly the same dire warnings were being issued about the impact of Functional Skills. We were told then that there was no need to change, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Key Skills and that if they were replaced by Functional Skills, it would be the end of the Apprenticeship programme.
But of course we know now that Key Skills had failed totally to raise levels of maths and English competency. Hardly surprising really for what was basically a tick-box exercise linked to a Multi Choice test in which you could achieve 25% simply by answering questions randomly. Moreover, the introduction of Functional Skills did not result in the death of the Apprenticeship programme but instead boosted its overall quality and gave learners a meaningful qualification and a real sense of achievement.
Let’s Look To The Future, Not To The Past
So whilst I retain concerns about certain aspects of the Employer Ownership proposals, in general I support the changes. It seems totally appropriate to me that the people who employ apprentices and who ultimately understand far more about their organisations’ training needs than providers, should be the driving force behind the programme. Our role as training providers is to support them and provide a high-quality service. That’s where our focus should be – not on the daily grind to secure sufficient funding.
Currently only 13% of UK companies participate in Apprenticeship programmes. That number is far too low and I am hopeful that the planned reforms will address that issue. With that in mind, it is hugely encouraging to see that over 400 organisations have already signed as Trailblazers who will lead the reform programme. They include many smaller companies and many who are clearly new to the Apprenticeship concept. Employers are the only people who can impact on Apprenticeship numbers and by giving them the responsibility to run their own programmes, I am confident that they will rise to the challenge.
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