A number of apprenticeship reviews over the last two years have suggested the system might be broken. There may well be issues, argues Graham Hoyle, but it certainly doesn’t need wholesale fixing

As FE Week reported at the end of May, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) has a serious difficulty with the apparent notion that a ‘major programme of reform’ is needed for apprenticeships.

It seems at odds with the government pronouncements, in its Rigour and Responsiveness paper, that the programme works and is a success.

This is not to say we shouldn’t be looking for improvement. But the National Apprenticeship Service recently released figures showing online applications were up 32 per cent and that there was an average of 11 applicants for every vacancy.

My members noticed long ago that the fight to gain a place on an apprenticeship in some sectors and for some employers had become almost as tough as winning a place at a Russell Group university.

Entry requirements were being raised and while this has improved the perception of the programme among businesses and young people, there was a danger of a large number of young people being excluded from the government’s flagship skills programme.

This is why AELP pressed for traineeships to act as a ladder to full apprenticeship for young people who left school without the necessary qualifications.

The various reviews and inquiries on apprenticeships over the last two years have said much about provision quality and we would be more comfortable with the recommendations if they stemmed more from what is actually happening on the ground.

For example, we are told employers are not at the centre of designing apprenticeship standards and qualifications.

This is totally unfounded as Sector Skills Councils play a key role in the development and approval of all frameworks.

The Richard Review had some harsh criticisms on how the training of apprentices was assessed. But the 92 per cent satisfaction rates would indicate businesses do already trust and value the assessment delivered in apprenticeships.

Employers should be encouraged to make maximum use of the highly-experienced and skilled assessors employed by training providers.

Currently, assessments are subject to both internal and external quality assurance, being covered by the QCF regulations and with Ofqual having the statutory powers to address concerns.

This rigorous system, with a strong cadre of awarding organisations, should be retained.

The biggest challenge to building on current successes is engaging more employers.

Our training provider members work with 368,000 employers and they simply wouldn’t exist if they did not know how to engage successfully with them.

So they know a thing or two about how to sell the idea of apprenticeships to local companies and what they tell us is that the existing funding system is not an obstacle to engaging more employers; it just needs to work better.

We are therefore discussing with the Skills Funding Agency its performance management rules for next year so funding can be more easily and more quickly switched to providers who can show evidence of demand for apprenticeships.

This is a better solution than wholesale change to the direct funding of employers and on the basis of what we are hearing, the effectiveness of the Employer Ownership pilots especially in terms of outreach to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), will require careful evaluation.

The direct funding option should be available to employers, but it must not be the sole funding route and we remain seriously worried this proposal would decimate SMEs’ involvement in apprenticeships.

While we must all work together to maintain standards in the programme, there is a danger of reforms leading to bureaucratic overload.

The end product of an apprenticeship must be a fully-rounded apprentice with the competencies required to do the job.

Too much regulatory concentration on process will be counterproductive.

Graham Hoyle OBE, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers