It’s just over a year since the minimum duration rule was applied, meaning most apprenticeships would have to last at least a year. Phil Hatton looks at whether the rule offers the quality assurance it was hoped for.

I was one of the two authors of the first NVQ back in 1987, which really changed the face of the old style time-served apprenticeships and the way they have subsequently developed.

That first level two NVQ was supposed to be the equivalent of five GCSEs and got away from the concept of annual end-of-course examinations. It was designed for delivery anywhere and wasn’t confined to the classroom.

Therein lies the current problem for this and previous governments who have shared an obsession with large scale growth in the number of apprentices, regardless of what the apprenticeships were in or who the apprentices were.

The mistake that those in government have made is to think that using ‘time-served’ rather than ‘quality of delivery and learning’ is a magic potion to ‘root out poor delivery’.

Some adults taking apprenticeships have already developed substantial amounts of work skills which can accelerate how quickly they demonstrate their technical competence.

They will usually take longer to pass functional skills and other written tests such as technical certificates because they are out of the habit of studying.

However, if the decision has been taken to fund adults with previous experience as apprentices, they should not be forced to take a year by slowing-up their progress and diminishing their enthusiasm for learning, when nine months would do.

Not everything labelled ‘apprenticeship’ should be an apprenticeship

This ‘never mind the quality, think of the duration’ approach does not solve the problem of shoddy provision or work to ensure excellence in delivery, especially if the apprenticeship product is not equitable.

The real crux of the matter is not the time taken to deliver an apprenticeship, but the inequality between the different frameworks.

We are not talking about functional skills, but the heart of the apprenticeship, the vocational qualification.

That first NVQ was not time-bound, but the brightest apprentices took 18 months and most two years to achieve it (anything less and you knew there was something ‘dodgy’ occurring).

That ‘five-GCSE’ equivalent has now completely gone out of the window for a level two apprenticeship.

The simple truth is that not everything labelled ‘apprenticeship’ should be an apprenticeship.

An example that comes up frequently at conferences is the ‘security guard’ apprenticeship.

I had previously inspected excellent provision where training in the main area was delivered in three to four days and people got jobs. Now, even with some beefing up to make a framework, can that be worth the ‘five GCSEs’?

Providers have said they will have longer periods between visits to employers to stretch the delivery time out. Does that sound like quality delivery?

Proposals to get employers involved in designing qualifications already exists — in NVQs

Ofqual and the late QCA have not done the FE sector any favours by allowing the explosion in inequitable level two qualifications. Perhaps the term ‘traineeships’ should have been saved for the lesser content frameworks?

Post Richard Review, the proposals to get employers involved in designing qualifications already exists — in NVQs.

There is a reluctance by lead training organisations to help niche employers, such as newer engineering technologies, develop qualifications because of the low numbers who will need them.

The model of employer development being proposed sounds too much like an earlier failure, when colleges developed thousands of bespoke qualifications validated by other colleges.

But why learn from previous mistakes such as Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) direct NVQs (where TECs quality assured small providers and received countless inadequate inspection judgements) and franchising? These could have informed the rules for ensuring robust subcontracting?

My plea is for the Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, to not rely solely on those who want to see increases in numbers engaging in apprenticeships, but to see engagement in apprenticeships that will mean something to employers and eventually offer a real alternative to university for our young people.

Phil Hatton, FE improvement consultant at Learning Improvement Service Ltd and former Ofsted HMI