The new report highlights a number of key issues that are echoed in my book on Apprenticeships, ‘A Race to the Top.’ In particular, the importance of setting a wider range of success measures that goes well beyond the target of three million more Apprenticeships by 2020.
If we are to see a lasting transformation in Apprenticeships, these additional Apprenticeships must really make a difference to productivity, closing skills gaps and the social mobility of young people. Quality as well as quantity is vital but we need a broader set of clear metrics that will better define quality for individual employers, Apprentices (and their parents), the economy and the taxpayer. My book suggests what many of these important measures should be.
The NAO report also highlights the need to ensure that the Trailblazer process proceeds apace and delivers the employer leadership and benefits that are required. This resonated strongly with messages from the learndirect Business Exchanges where employers want to ensure all of the Trailblazers work for them and remaining occupational gaps in new standards are filled quickly. This has been given more urgency of course by the recent funding proposals, which are more generous for Trailblazer standards than for frameworks.
Apprenticeships need to work for apprentices too. I continue to worry about the persistent feedback from apprentices who are not receiving expected levels of training or do not know they are on an Apprenticeship. While I take limited comfort from employers who tell me that apprentices often do not recognise certain episodes of training, seeing it as part of their employment experience, and that older apprentices are often called something else such as a trainee, these levels of unsatisfactory feedback are unacceptable as well as inexplicable.
I recall visiting a very well regarded Apprenticeship centre supporting the automotive sector. Their trainees were returning to their employers and were seemingly unable to recount any training they had received. New arrangements were introduced to address this, improving communication links between the trainer, apprentice and the employer. Suddenly the apprentices were much clearer about the training they had received.
So while we should not always conclude there is a quality of training problem, we cannot afford to neglect this issue. These aspects of apprentice feedback need urgent investigation. We must fully understand what is happening to produce these results and sort out any underlying problems. We cannot afford for the Apprenticeship programme to be tarnished in this way and the problem is not diminishing according to the NAO report.
The call for more work on assessing and managing behavioural risks, ensuring that lessons are learnt from previous initiatives, which have not turned out as planned, such as Individual Learning Accounts, is a very prudent recommendation. I recall ruefully when Train to Gain was closed and Apprenticeships became the major source of public funding, we had to take robust measures to deter those seemingly more interested in profits that in the future prospects of young people and their employers. Forewarned is indeed forearmed in this case.
Finally, the report discusses the important role for the Institute for Apprenticeships. I support the idea that it should have a role similar to the Bank of England’s independent Monetary Policy Committee. It could then monitor the success of the Apprenticeship programme and advise everyone in Government, and those of us beyond, who are determined to see Apprenticeships succeed.
That of course brings us back to the NAO’s first question. What is success? The answer should be the subject of much-needed further debate.
You can view the full report on the NAO website here.
Along with my role as learndirect Apprenticeships Ambassador, I’m also a visiting professor at the University of Winchester and I have a book on Apprenticeships, ‘ A Race to the Top’, published by Winchester University Press.