The government is pushing hard on promoting apprenticeships, but five key areas still need to be looked at, including employer engagement and maths and English, explains David Russell, chief executive of the Education & Training Foundation.

I have been heavily involved in shaping national apprenticeships policy over much of the last five years. But the view from Whitehall is always a partial one, in many senses of the word.

That’s why, in my first month as chief executive of the Education and Training Foundation, I have been visiting providers, talking to learners, and hearing what employers, apprentices and sector professionals across the country need.

Those of us who work in the sector need no convincing about the vital role apprenticeships play in building the skilled workforce employers need to reshape the economy and meet local and regional business needs.

We know apprenticeships can provide the highest quality learning experiences, and that there is an abundance of excellent practice out there, with providers working hand-in-hand with employers to deliver relevant, high level training with a clear line of sight to work.

But we should not make the mistake of assuming everyone outside the sector shares this view.

There is still a long way to go in terms of convincing young people, parents, and indeed schools, that vocational study is as valuable and rigorous a route into a career as university.

Not all training providers and employers are best placed or equipped to support apprentices or engage with the government’s planned reforms to the apprenticeship programme.

And for all the fanfare, the percentage of employers hiring apprentices in the UK is still disappointingly low, especially among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

That’s why the foundation is commissioning a suite of programmes to support providers and employers in further developing their apprenticeship programmes, and ensuring that traineeships, which are often the route into apprenticeships, are rigorous programmes which increase employability of young people and promote to employers the value of learning in a working context.

In November, we commissioned two of the sector membership bodies which shape our board — the Association of Colleges and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers — to ask providers what they needed to help them, and their apprentices, achieve their full potential.

Their members told us they need help in five key areas — engaging employers, especially SMEs; communicating the benefits of maths and English provision to learners and employers; embedding maths and English into apprenticeships; developing staff and their capacity; and ensuring that the apprenticeship provision is tailored to suit employer needs.

In response, we have launched our apprenticeship support programme. It will have two phases.

The first, which launches this month and runs until December, will focus on engaging and involving employers, especially SMEs; meeting the needs of the labour market, locally, nationally, or for a specific or emerging sector; and preparing for the design of apprenticeships in the future.

The second, which runs from January to July next year, will embed and contextualise level two maths and English, develop new approaches to teaching, learning and assessment, and adapt and develop existing apprenticeship delivery to fit the new standards being delivered by the government’s trailblazer pilots.

Just like apprentices, professionals in our sector want their learning to be relevant, in the context of their work, and provided by experts. So models to support these approaches will be at the heart of our programme.

We will also be supporting and managing a series of provider-led action research projects. The learning from these will be used to enable all types of providers to learn from, adopt and embed effective practice.

I want this programme to equip and enable sector professionals with the confidence and professionalism to encourage employers to expand their involvement with apprenticeships.

I also want us to help employers evolve from being intelligent customers to informed collaborators, ensuring apprenticeships bring the benefits to the economy we know they can.

National Apprenticeship Week supplement

National Apprenticeship Week supplement