Government direction on skills policy is clear — take-up the apprenticeships challenge. Colleges that don’t act accordingly put their futures at risk, explains Teresa Frith.

Nobody could blame colleges if they were overwhelmed by government policy. With apprenticeship reforms and targets, new vocational routes from 16, changes to higher education, area reviews, devolution and a continuing need to save money the pressure on colleges is growing.

I have probably missed more of the policy activity, but you get the idea. These all impact on colleges’ delivery of apprenticeships.

With this much change, it can be hard for colleges to work out how and when to plan an effective response. While a lot of detail around apprenticeship reform is still up in the air, the general direction is pretty clear, and that means colleges can’t afford to do nothing in response.

And, let’s face it, right now there’s enough going on to find a lot of reasons to put off responding.

While a lot of detail around apprenticeship reform is still up in the air, the general direction is pretty clear, and that means colleges can’t afford to do nothing in response

Maybe the first question for colleges to ask is a simple one — do they want to continue delivering apprenticeships? In choosing to stay, consideration must be given to transition plans from the current apprenticeship frameworks, to the new standards with their independent, end-point assessments.

There are also a lot of factors to take into consideration, such as which apprenticeship standards to offer, whether to also offer independent assessment services and how to ensure that employers will continue to work with the college within the new approach to funding.

It’s important that the college infrastructure is geared up not only for the delivery and assessment of the apprenticeship standards, but also for the changes that will be needed to adapt to the funding reforms, which will require colleges to take a more commercial approach and will mean the end of funding allocations.

Staff across the college need to be ready, willing and able to make the shift. At least within apprenticeship delivery, colleges remain in control of their own offer; they just need to be confident that ‘their’ employers will want to buy it from them, and not another provider.

Such a funding regime is very different to the world of college allocations.

Whatever stage a college is at in the planning process, there are a number of things that they will need to do; stay informed so they are aware of what’s coming and can adapt, have access to reliable data — not just on their own organisation, but on competitors, the employers they are seeking to work with and the students who will take up the training. They will need to take all staff, customers and stakeholders along with them on the planning and implementation journey.

One thing about the reforms taking place around us in FE is that they are all pointing in a similar direction for the most part — the achievement of significant growth in apprenticeship numbers. Government policy is pulling away from full-time, classroom-based provision and towards apprenticeships.

The alterations to 16 to 18 education within the new proposals around vocational routes are geared towards preparing young people for work and an apprenticeship.

The work within higher education is away from full-time degrees and towards degree apprenticeships and shorter, more flexible delivery.

How can colleges develop plans that focus student recruitment on apprenticeships and routes to apprenticeships, ahead of filling full-time classroom-based provision, as a priority? What changes will colleges need to make to achieve this shift, and what must policy-makers, stakeholders and other intermediaries do and change to allow that to happen?

We are at a point now in FE and apprenticeships reform in England where the path has been set and it is towards work and apprenticeships. This is not going to change in the next few years and colleges need to adapt to this shift, regardless of what they might think or how comfortable they are with it. To do nothing is to fall out of importance in skills education and training.

If colleges do not rise to the challenge of 3m quality apprenticeships, then there’s a real danger government will find other providers who will and then it may well be too late to get back in the game.