Many apprenticeship reviews over the last few years have called for change to the programme, but, asks Michael Woodgate, what about enforcing the rules that already exist?

Much has been made of the government’s recent announcement on “new” appren­ticeships, but just how radical are these reforms and, more importantly, will they make any significant difference?

When the Train to Gain (TtG) gravy train hit the buffers in 2010/11, providers needed an alternative source of revenue. As a college manager put it to me when I asked her how they would cope worth the loss of TtG funding: “That’s simple — we’ll just use apprenticeship funding instead.”

“But these learners aren’t apprentices,” I lamely replied. She looked at me implying she pitied my naivety.

But what she’d said was right. And so began the chronicle of well-reported abuses of the sys­tem which, after various inquiries and reports, brought us to the latest government proposals.

The October 2013 Implementation Plan articu­lates four principles. An apprenticeship is a job in a skilled occupation, it requires substantial and sustained training, it leads to full compe­tency to a standard defined by employers and, lastly, it develops transferable skills including English and maths.

But describing these as “principles of future apprenticeships” rather ignores the fact that all of these principles apply now. The problem is that no-one is enforcing them.

The current standards for apprenticeships are laid down in the Specifications for Appren­ticeship Standards in England (SASE) which set out the minimum standards for apprenticeship frameworks.

Then, in May 2012, in response to John Hayes’ and others’ widespread concern about sub standard apprenticeships, the National Appren­ticeship Service (NAS) published its statement on apprenticeship quality. All four of the “new” principles are covered by the standards in these two documents.

No amount of tinkering with the architecture of apprenticeships will make any difference unless there are rigorous standards, demonstrably enforced

But earlier this year I dealt with a large and well known provider who had enrolled more than 250 existing and capable employees on to apprenticeships six months after this statement was issued.

Nor do I for one moment think this is a rogue provider acting outside the mainstream — the fact that, over a year after the NAS statement was published, they barely recognised they were doing anything wrong indicates how lightly this standard is enforced.

Again, when it comes to the second “new” principle — “Substantial and sustained train­ing, lasting a minimum of twelve months and including off the job training” — the SASE and the NAS statement are unambiguous.

The SASE specifies minimum on-the-job and off-the-job Guided Learning Hours (GLHs) and the NAS statement specifies a twelve-month minimum duration.

But who is responsible for counting GLHs? The same people who check how well the Em­ployment Rights and Responsibilities element has been delivered — that’s nobody.

These new apprenticeships will have “an apprenticeship standard defined by employ­ers”. But isn’t this what National Occupational Standards (NOS), allegedly drawn up with the full involvement of employer representatives, and on which apprenticeship qualifications are based, supposed to do? Or are NOS and qualifications not fit for this purpose, in which case why have we been funding Sector Skills Councils for the past decade?

And with regard to English and maths, there is again a standard specified in the NAS state­ment which is, on the evidence I’ve seen, widely ignored.

No amount of tinkering with the architecture of apprenticeships will make any difference un­less there are rigorous standards, demonstrably enforced.

Currently, different organisations look at different bits of the apprenticeship — award­ing bodies look at consistency of assessment, Ofsted looks at provider quality while the Skills Funding Agency seems mainly concerned with financial aspects and the prevention of fraud.

What no one organisation has, is responsi­bility for making a judgement on the overall quality of apprenticeship delivery and its value to learners, employers and taxpayers. Until such a responsibility is established it is unlikely anything very much will change.

Michael Woodgate, Independent Skills Consultant