Even last week, we would all have expected that attending the AELP Conference, we would be treated to ministerial speeches and Q&A sessions that would have provided some much-needed clarity on the reforms that are affecting our sector. However, on Friday it probably became evident, in amongst so many other emotions and reactions, that we weren’t going to have a business-as-usual week!

While Priti Patel’s absence due to a cabinet meeting meant that we didn’t get an update from the DWP, I suspect that delegates, like me, were more anxious to hear from skills minister, Nick Boles. Reassurance of the government’s commitment to apprenticeships was welcome. However, a further delay to the publication of more detail on the implementation of the levy will have caused concern.

As both an awarding organisation and a future levy-paying employer, we at OCR are keenly awaiting the detail of how the levy will be implemented and how the funding system will work. Given that the documents we were expecting this week will provide only indicative information, it is critical that Nick Boles delivers on his promise to publish these ahead of the summer recess.

It was interesting to note that some key themes were referenced again during the first morning of conference. We agree with Mark Dawe’s assertion that apprenticeship frameworks are not broken and the best standards are those developed with employers, providers and an awarding organisation. With the pace of change on apprenticeship reform, we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and should think again about what changes are required. We need to consider the future impact on apprentices of a lack of qualifications in apprenticeships, if that becomes the norm; and critically, if we are to have an employer-led system, we must listen to those employers who find their framework is fit for purpose and not reform everything for the sake of it.

It was reassuring to hear the minister also mention young people’s voices, alongside his usual call for the views of employers. At the conference, we were pleased to be joined by a youth ambassador from YEUK, Michael Tran. Too often in the drive to have an ‘employer-led’ system, we have neglected to hear from this important group – the learners themselves. Michael talked about the three apprenticeships he has done. His experience of careers guidance (his head teacher encouraged him to apply for university rather than ‘be poor for the rest of his life’ if he did an apprenticeship) and poor pay levels for his first apprenticeship (£75 a week for 30 hours) show that there is still much work still to be done. And while Nick Boles acknowledged there is much work needed on teachers and parents to promote apprenticeships, it’s difficult in the current climate to imagine how much progress can be made.

Another critical change that will be coming over the next few years will be the impact of devolution. Ann Limb’s session reinforced that skills and apprenticeships will be key areas for those devolution deals. Given the localised focus of each LEP, it’s not surprising that each LEP operates differently, although this obviously makes engagement a challenge. But with experience in meeting employer needs and responding to changes, the sector is well-placed to support the skills priorities that emerge.

In his speech, Nick Boles made reference to education and skills being more important than ever to the success of the country. This will not be news to anyone engaged in this sector, who will already know that the only way to resolve skills shortages is through more and better training. We must keep pushing government to deliver the answers to these important questions, so we can concentrate on delivering.

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