New apprenticeship standards are being developed by Trailblazer employers. Hilary Hall outlines how this is proceeding within her sector.

We got involved in the Trailblazer process because it has been clear since I started at the NHF almost two years ago there was a problem with training and assessment within the industry.

Employers complained young people who had completed training programmes were not at salon-ready standard. There were even stories about learners who had never actually cut hair on a real person.

This is a big problem for a sector which, although made up of lots of micro businesses, is a massive employer of apprentices, especially 16 and 17-year-olds.

We were delighted when the Richard Review came out, welcoming independent assessment and grading which would give employers confidence that learners had reached salon-ready.

We were on the phone to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) the day Trailblazers were announced.

We were overwhelmed by the number of NHF members who wanted to get involved, so we put in a bid along with Habia (the sector skills council), jointly supporting the employer-led group.

At first BIS was very insistent that only employers could be involved, especially large employers, and not training providers or awarding organizations.

In a sector where large employers are the exception rather than the rule, it was crucial for small businesses to be represented too.

There’s no funding for Trailblazers but there is a real cost to salon owners for taking time out of their business.

The NHF covered travel expenses for small business members to encourage them to stay on board.

BIS was very insistent that only employers could be involved, especially large employers, and not training providers or awarding organizations

Nevertheless, the dropout rate from the original Trailblazer group was high as timescales were ridiculously tight, information kept changing as policy emerged, and the number of meetings far exceeded our original expectations.

We soon re-organised to have a small strategic steering group, plus working groups for hairdressing, barbering, beauty and for assessment. Even so, from January to March this year alone there have been six meetings of the various groups.

Among the headaches for the group was the issue of level — employers would have preferred one apprenticeship which covered all the skills needed by a hairdresser, probably at level three and lasting three years.

But government policy dictates that level three means achieving Functional Skills at level two and, while employers do not want to perpetuate the myth that hairdressing is only for dummies, Functional Skills are a real barrier for some of the young people attracted into hairdressing.

Even though some of the content would previously have been at level three, the hairdressing apprenticeship is now set at level two.

Duration was another hotly debated issue. Employers wanted a minimum of two years, or even three, training providers wanted to keep it at one year as required by government policy. Announcements about funding reforms were a massive distraction as it became increasingly hard to separate out standards development from funding issues.

Arguments about level, duration and assessment took up a lot of time, but were primarily driven by funding concerns rather than standards, and the uncertainties about future funding models made all these discussions more difficult than they would otherwise have been.

The hair professional Trailblazer standard settled upon has a two-year duration and is at level two.

We do expect that a longer two-year duration for hairdressing and the independently assessed end test will increase costs, which will need to be taken into account with funding bands.

Employers still want learners to progress through a qualification as part of their programme, but we’re calling for fewer assessments to avoid duplication with the end test which would be the final stage of the qualification.

But let’s not forget that over the years hours have been cut back, and the quality of assessment is variable, mainly due to lack of current salon practice, to the point that employers strongly believe standards have been eroded.

And raising standards is precisely the reason employers got involved with Trailblazers in the first place.