Joy Mercer, AoC and Bob Powell, Holex, offered opinions and views from the floor
Apprenticeships were fiercely debated at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) conference, with a diverse panel of experts exploring how to improve standards.
Central to the debate was the question of quality. Members of the panel suggested that the government’s drive to increase quantity has been detrimental. They said that companies have felt pushed into increasing numbers and have achieved this by providing shorter apprenticeships that cost less.
John Hyde, who helped found Hospitality Industry Training (HIT), said: “It is the tightest time I have ever known and I have been in this business a long time now (…) I think we’re almost at the bottom of where the unit costs can go.”
Mr Hyde said that HIT had managed to increase quality, despite costs coming down year on year, but that a lot of qualifications were no longer delivered.
The problem of substandard delivery was discussed in detail. Sarah Benioff, from the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), said that there was “always going to be” a small percentage of “rogues” and that the focus needed to be on working together to drive them out.
Nick Linford, the managing editor of FE Week, pulled Ms Benioff up on this and said that “we shouldn’t rewrite history”.
Jonathan Ledger, NSA Chris Starling, Virgin Media John Hyde, HIT Training
“We wouldn’t be introducing minimum durations, you wouldn’t have a high quality strategy, you possibly wouldn’t be in the role that you’re in, and David Way (interim chief executive of NAS) wouldn’t possibly be responsible for quality, if there wasn’t a problem,” he said.
“It is really important we don’t take our eye off the ball and we do increase quality. You cannot do that without investing more resources.”
Mr Hyde, who is a director of AELP, drew attention to the poor level of assessors’ pay – on average below £20,000.
He said he found it “quite alarming” that assessors were only worth this amount, questioning how the government valued apprenticeships, when other people in the education system were paid more.
The employer’s role in financing apprenticeships was discussed. Chris Starling from Virgin Media believed that if the quality was correct then employers “will pay”.
The differing attitudes of employers, however, was emphasised by Mr Hyde, who described a recent invitation he received to tender from an international hotel company.What are we doing as a society if at the end of the qualification we’re saying [goodbye], good luck?”
“They wanted £50,000 for the privilege of tendering, then they wanted a £50,000 kickback, and then they wanted 5 per cent each year of the total money the SFA pay as a kickback. Is that legal? Is that right?” Mr Hyde exclaimed.
Nick Linford, FE Week Sarah Benioff, NAS Ian Nash, debate chair
How to define an apprenticeship kicked off the debate, with Ms Benioff reading out NAS’s definition. Jonathan Ledger, from the National Skills Academy Strategic Network, questioned why the government was so determined to label all work based training as an apprenticeship.
“Why don’t we just deliver what employers want?” he said. “If that’s a bag of units that make no coherent sense to you or I, what does it matter? It’s their business, they’re the ones trying to make the crust for tomorrow and pay the wages next week.”
Mr Hyde said the confusion stemmed from when modern apprenticeships were introduced by the previous Conservative administration.
“Suddenly we moved away from traditional apprenticeships and we went into retail and the service sector.
“But we forgot to tell the public that’s what we’d done and the civil service didn’t tell each other, and we certainly didn’t tell the minister. So suddenly John Hayes, the skills minister, gets the tabloids chasing him about short delivery.
“Does it honestly take as long to train an electrician as it does to train a chamber maid? “Suddenly we’ve got this 12-month rule imposed on us because of the wrong perception from three generations of parliament ago, in explaining what a modern apprenticeship is.”
What needs to change about the current programme was a recurrent topic. Mr Linford found it “phenomenal” that the government had not made it mandatory to record whether an apprenticeship was job creation or not. He also argued that it was vital to know how many apprenticeships were on fixed-term contracts.
“What are we doing as a society if we’re creating apprenticeship roles for people, and at the end of the qualification we’re saying [goodbye], good luck?
“Why is the government not collecting information at the end and incentivising on the basis if necessary? They’re obvious things to me, I don’t understand why they’re so hard to implement,” he said.
We’re almost at the bottom of where the unit costs can go”
Mr Hyde called for a register of corrupt assessors. He stated that currently when a fraudulent assessor was sacked they simply went to another company, “so the bad practice moves from one provider to another provider”.
“Somebody has got to take responsibility that there is a register of qualified practitioners,” he said.
Responsibility was a term that kept being referred to by panellists. Ms Benioff said NAS “cannot be in charge of quality”.
“We have to do it with all of you, with all our stakeholders, our partners, with AELP, AoC, Ofsted, LSIS, everybody,” she explained.
“I would argue that we all have a responsibility (…) to make it known if there is poor quality.” Sector skills councils had a massive role to play, she said.
This was picked up on by Mr Linford, who said: “Let’s be absolutely clear, in July last year Vince Cable gave the chief executive of the NAS responsibility of quality and value for money.
“The question is, is NAS the right place, given they are a marketing organisation?”
The editor argued that the debate should now move on to Ofsted.
“If we can’t self-regulate, and I’m not convinced that we can, I think that’s been proven, then do we need to revisit something like we had under the adult learning inspectorate?”
The morning session considered priorities
Dame Ruth Silver, debate chair Dr Susan Pember, BIS Graham Hoyle OBE, AELP
A series of questions set off the conference, with the audience asked to vote on topics such as how they would prioritise teaching, learning and assessment. You can see some of the results in the graph on page 16.
The event was chaired by Dame Ruth Silver, who said: “We’re going to listen, we’re going to think, we’re going to respond, we’re going to question.”
The audience listened to five panel members give their views on teaching and learning. Here are some highlights.
Dr Susan Pember, the director for further education at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, said that the “hot topic” for government at the moment is ensuring pupils raise their aspirations.
“That is where you’re actually changing somebody’s whole being, which to me is often the value of teaching”. The director said that it is something that is currently not assessed, because “we haven’t got the tools to do it.”
Fiona McMillan, the president of the Association of Colleges, said that teaching is about enabling students “to strike out on their own, to survive in what can be a pretty cut throat world, and most importantly, to have the confidence to be innovative.”
She added: “I think one of the ways to encourage people not to be self-confident and self-learn is to straight jacket in them into a curriculum, the relevance of which is not always clear to them.”
Matthew Coffey, the national director of learning and skills at Ofsted, spoke about no notice inspections, describing a teacher who during the pilot was stood on a chair with a captivated classroom, but stepped down as soon as the inspector walked in.
“There’s a lesson in there for all of us, for us, about the messages that we send out,” he said.
Fiona McMillan, AoC Matthew Coffey, Ofsted Professor Lorna Unwin, IoE