Far-reaching government reforms were scrutinised at the Apprenticeship Debate, organised by Association of Education and Learning Providers (AELP).
The event, held at the Trades Union Congress HQ in Central London, was attended by around 200 delegates from providers, trade unions and government.
The topic of discussion was reform proposals emanating from Doug Richard’s review of apprenticeships in England, published in 2012.
Since then, change has been on the horizon and key among government reform plans is to fund apprenticeships through the tax system and increase employer ownership of the programme.
Stewart Segal, of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) chief executive, reflected a feeling among many delegates at the event when he laid out AELP’s position on the proposed reforms.
“The apprenticeships programme itself is in a good place,” he said, adding: “But we do share the key objective of the programme, simplifying the system, getting employers more involved, more engaged and improving the delivery to learners.
“We are there with the objectives — it’s about how we get there.”
Here is a snapshot of some of the issues raised throughout the day.
Trailblazers are groups of companies who are leading the design of the reformed apprenticeships, which are being formed in phases.
Jennifer Coupland, deputy director of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Joint Apprenticeship Unit, said government recognised the need to engage small employers as well as larger companies.
She said: “Twenty per cent of the employers involved in the first set of trailblazers are small employers… we’ve been very clear we didn’t want intermediary organisations taking on this role and interpreting what employers wanted, we wanted genuine employers and that’s what we’ve got.”
The Joint Apprenticeship Unit’s Jayne McCann was unable to say when provider trailblazers would be rolled out, but that “the Association of Colleges and AELP are open for expressions of interest now”.
Keith Smith, executive director for funding and programmes at the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), urged providers who wanted to get involved to “talk to the SFA and to their local enterprise partnerships”.
Better pay security
Tom Wilson, director of the TUC’s education arm Unionlearn, argued learners would be less likely to be underpaid with increased employer involvement.
“I think fundamentally, the problem we’ve got here is that employers are not yet enough at the heart of the system,” he said.
“If they were, if they really valued and cherished the course that they were buying, they would not allow that level of underpayment to happen because they’d care about it, they’d care that they were breaking the law and they’d care more about quality of what they were offering.”
Grading and end testing
Doug Richard recommended apprentices should be tested at the end of their course and graded on pass, merit and distinction and these ideas provoked opposition from many delegates.
On grading, Mr Segal said: “Providers I’ve spoken to don’t want to grade competence because as far as they’re concerned competence is binary.”
John Hyde, HIT Training managing director, agreed, saying: “It’s not about good better or best, it’s about the gain in competence.”
He described end testing as “bizarre”.
“Would you want a surgeon who had done a one-off test and was using you for practice to get their competencies up?” he said.
However, Ms Coupland insisted end point assessment “does not preclude assessment along the way”.
Advanced Learning Loans
A significant challenge facing apprenticeships has been the drop in numbers linked to the introduction of loans for learners over 23.
Apprenticeships have been dropped from the scheme and Ms Coupland admitted: “It was the wrong policy for this programme.”
Martin Dunford, AELP chair, said: “It’s about the government not listening — we made it so clear apprenticeship loans wouldn’t work.”
Mr Smith told providers they would receive the same funding for apprentices who would have been eligible for loans as they had received the year before loans were introduced.
The Apprentice Debate took place on Thursday, February 20.