Employers are set to figure at the heart of a much-awaited review of apprenticeships, FE Week can exclusively reveal.

Former Dragons’ Den star Doug Richard, whose independent review is expected to be published by the end of the month, said he wanted to see “much more employer involvement” on apprenticeships.

“I’ve been doing everything I can, using as many different devices and activities to encourage, incentivise, drive and hope for, much more employer involvement because apprenticeships more than anything else are partly a job, which by definition means you need an employer in the mix,” he told FE Week at the launch of the Entrepreneurs and Education Programme at Lewisham College incorporating Southwark College on Monday, November 12.

“This is what’s unique about apprenticeships, therefore employer involvement on many levels is simply more important than in other things we do.

“I’ve put a lot of effort into increasing the type, the calibre and the depth of employer involvement and that’s a clear message of the review.”

Mr Richard was joined at Lewisham College’s Waterloo Campus for the programme launch by Michael Fallon MP, Minister for Business and Enterprise.

The Entrepreneurs and Education Programme is being funded by £1.1m of cash from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills over three years to provide support and advice to students, teachers and researchers across 100 colleges and universities.

Mr Fallon said: “Entrepreneurship is coming back into colleges. We’ve had enterprise societies across universities colleges and the further education sector.

“It can be taught by example. By getting entrepreneurs to come in to colleges, getting businesses into colleges and businesspeople to talk about how rewarding it can be to set up a business and start employing other people.”

The programme, supported by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, aims to create a new generation of educational entrepreneurs by equipping colleges and universities across the country with the tools to survive a competitive marketplace.

There were seminars throughout the day, from 9am, with students and staff listening to Mr Richard’s views and advice on business.

“Entrepreneurship can be taught,” he said. “And it’s not so much that’s it’s lacking in FE, it’s just that we don’t have the structures and the systems to promote it to flourish to the degree we want.

“This is broadly in the context of FE colleges, specifically in the context of vocational education and very much in the case of apprenticeships, which I intend to change.”

Online exclusive

 Q&A with Doug Richard on his upcoming apprenticeships review

The Richard Review was launched by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills just before the summer.

It was tasked with taking a medium to long-term look at the future of apprenticeships in England, identifying best practice and ensuring future apprenticeships meet the needs of the changing economy, and ensuring apprenticeships deliver the qualifications and skills employers need to world class benchmarks.

It is expected to be published by the end of the month, but author Doug Richard gave FE Week an exclusive interview ahead of the big launch.

How did the review go?

It was a far more complex world than I perhaps appreciated. There was a complexity that doesn’t necessarily have to endure. It’s delivering many benefits, so you have to be very careful not to flush out the baby with the bathwater and there turned out to be many more benefits than I had accounted for.

Any surprises when you carried out review?

The thing that hit me first was how complex the apprenticeship system is in this country. It’s got a lot of stakeholders and players. The second thing was because it’s so large in terms of sheer numbers of people involved, there’s a great deal of good stuff going on within it, but that doesn’t prevent there from being a lot of stuff that’s not good as well.

It was not at all intuitive, that is to say how do you set up a system that is more prepared for the future, which bear in mind was my remit — it’s not to tinker around the edges of the old system, but to say the future’s coming at us and conditions are changing enormously so what’ll we do to make sure we have a clean system that works in such way so that it’s future-proofed. It’s ready for what’s coming, which means we had to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s coming.

What conclusions have you come to?

The big conclusions we’ve drawn are about the engagement of employers on a more profound level and on lots of different levels, making sure the system engages students on an equal level at the right points of time with better information about what it means to be an apprentice versus alternative forms of education and a real focus on higher quality — but what does that mean? If you get on the ground, what does quality really mean? It is a very vague word and so we really had to dig around on it — who’s doing it right and what are the hallmarks of quality activity and how can we make sure those things happen elsewhere?

The BIS Select Committee on apprenticeships called for greater definition on the term apprenticeship. Do you agree there is a need to define what an apprenticeship is?

I think it’s reassuring that two different groups of people with profoundly different situations can look at the same thing and see many things in common — there’s more in common than not, which is a good thing. Their comment about the definition of what constitutes an apprenticeship is very relevant. In the review I’ve gone to a great deal of effort to be extremely precise about what I believe should be included within that word and what shouldn’t, and if it’s not included what should we be doing in those instances. There’s lots worth preserving, they just don’t have to be called apprenticeships. So yes, the issue of definition is going to be a part of the report.

Lord Heseltine’s report, No Stone Unturned, made much of the role of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). Do these figure in your thinking?

Lord Heseltine has a very strong view of localism that is almost theological. It spans almost anything he looks at. He asks himself ‘how can we be local?’ He and I aren’t completely aligned, but in fairness to him there is a local element to apprenticeships and it’s wonderful when you get it right. But ignore LEPS for a moment because they’re just an entity – it’s a type of thing. The fact is if local colleges and local businesses work together for local demand that is a good thing and if we lose sight of that and the quality of community in this discussion then we short-change the apprenticeship programme. Having said that, there is an equal amount of stuff that is not divided by where are or what sector you are in. There is a marriage to be made of things that are properly sectoral and things that are properly local, and that’s where he and I differ.

The two reports mentioned brought into question the future of the Skills Funding Agency. Was your thinking along those lines, too?

We’ll have to wait for the report before I make as direct a comment as that.

Are you radical in the report?

In some ways absolutely, yes. But the problem is it’s still too early and we’re waiting for sign-offs.

Is the report going to make waves?

Anytime one seeks to build a template for a future of a system with that many participants and that many stakeholders you’d have thought a ripple or two might come up.

Has this country got it right on apprenticeships in any way?

Absolutely. There’s lots of things. We underestimate how good we are at having agile, flexible systems. When you look at the problems of apprenticeships systems, they tend to come from rigidity — it tends to come from them being so state-driven. That can be very valuable in capacity-building, but it makes them really difficult to change and the world’s changing really quickly.

How confident are you your report will be listened to and acted upon?

I’m very confident and obviously hopeful. I’ve had an open-door discussion with every relevant minister. Everyone loves apprenticeships and everyone wants to see them succeed and you don’t always have that. It’s important to remember this has been an independent review therefore I have felt very comfortable talking to all the senior people in the three major parties. You’ve got an uncommonly open door with cross-party support and I don’t think there’s grounds for a political fight over this — not a politicised fight. If there is discussion and debate over this, it’ll be over the substance rather than political background.