David Harbourne agrees with much of what has been recommended in the Labour skills taskforce review, but recommends a more flexible approach to policy.
There’s something vaguely familiar about the apprenticeship reforms proposed by Labour’s skills taskforce — also known as the Husbands Review.
As it happens, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Take the idea that the word apprenticeship should be reserved for programmes at level three and above, with level two programmes renamed as traineeships.
Modern apprenticeships were launched in the early 1990s as level three programmes, when they were expected to compete with A-levels.
Meanwhile, the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) gave unemployed young people work experience — and not much else.
Sir Ron Dearing said YTS should be reformed, using modern apprenticeships as the template. He came up with a level two framework, which he called National Traineeships.
The name didn’t last. The government said it was confusing to have two names for apparently similar programmes.
Modern apprenticeships became advanced apprenticeships, and national traineeships became apprenticeships.
What goes around, comes around.
The Husbands Review says level two programmes should be called traineeships. This may actually be a good idea — it’s just not new.
Next, the review says apprenticeships should last at least two years.
One of the big innovations introduced with modern apprenticeships was the abolition of time serving, which had been a key feature of apprenticeships for centuries.
The reason was simple — people learn at different speeds.
If someone has a real aptitude for a job and becomes fully competent in 18 months, why make them wait another six months before giving them a certificate?
I’m not convinced we need rigid rules like this.
Then there’s compulsory off-the-job training.
The Husbands Review says apprenticeships should include a day of off-the-job training every week. Allowing for five weeks of holiday each year, this means 94 days of compulsory off-the-job training in two years.
That’s another rigid requirement — more than some sectors need and more than some employers could offer.
The review also states: “Training standards should be set at sector level by institutions that genuinely represent the interests of employers and young people.”
It recommends doing this through strengthening sector skills councils, although there could be a role for other sector bodies.
The central criticism of sector skills councils is that while some are very good, others are not seen as sufficiently representative of employers, particularly small employers.
The same criticism was levelled at industry training organisations, which led to the creation of national training organisations, which were replaced by … sector skills councils.
The problem here is reach. When I was working for the Hospitality Training Foundation, we aimed to involve around 300 businesses in qualification and apprenticeship design, taking account of sub-sectors, small, medium and large business, the public sector and regional differences.
However, there are more than a quarter of a million hotels, cafes, restaurants, pubs and fast-food outlets in the hospitality industry.
Three hundred might be a good cross-section, but it excludes 249,700 businesses, any one of which might tell the Husbands Review — or Doug Richard, for that matter — “I wasn’t consulted”.
Today, the task falls to People 1st (an excellent sector skills council, by the way).
It can’t reach every hospitality business, but if it’s given more resources it’ll be able to reach more than it does today.
So I support the Husbands Review on this. Invest in sector skills councils and help them do an even better job than they do today.
But don’t expect critics to be silenced. There will always be employers who complain that they weren’t consulted. It’s human nature and nothing’s going to change that.
David Harbourne, director of policy and research, the Edge Foundation