The speakers spoke and the audience listened — they even got to pose questions. So with the curtain having come down on the huge success that was the first FE Week annual apprenticeship conference, David Harbourne gives his overview of events.
The inaugural FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference was a fantastic opportunity to catch up on the latest developments in apprenticeship policy and practice.
There were plenty of facts and figures, clearly presented — not least by the newspaper’s former editor, Nick Linford, who has a knack of making complicated information easy to absorb.
Conference host Kirsty Wark also did a fantastic job of asking just the right questions, in just the right way.
That said, we didn’t get clear answers to every question. Skills Minister Nick Boles couldn’t announce the government’s final decision on funding reform, though he hinted we might not have long to wait.
Meanwhile, his advisers told us what they could about future stages of reform, but when they talk about “open policy making” and “iterative processes”, they usually mean “watch this space”.
On the other side of the political divide, Chukka Umunna didn’t go down as well as he might have hoped. Labour has made technical education and apprenticeships a major theme of their election campaign, but two things niggled this time round.
First, he wants to limit the word “apprenticeship” to levels three and above. He plans to rename level two provision, not abolish it — but the audience clearly didn’t like the idea, and didn’t hesitate to tell him.
Second, he gave no pledge on adult skills funding. Instead, he told us Labour would face “some very difficult choices” if elected in May, and would “have to justify every pound of government spending”.
We don’t know what the final apprenticeship landscape will look like. We don’t even have a firm grip on some of the things that matter most to employers and apprentices alike, such as end assessments
Yet in almost the same breath, he reminded us that Labour wants to limit higher education fees to £6,000. That helps the “remembered 50 per cent” — but what about the “forgotten 50 per cent”?
We also heard from the chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart.
Presenting the committee’s new report on apprenticeships, he started by highlighting the risk that Trailblazers will be dominated by larger companies.
On funding, he said small firms should be given a choice between administering it themselves, or accessing it via a provider.
And he called for the return of pre-16 work experience and Young Apprenticeships.
But as the dust settled in the days after the conference, one thing struck me more than any other. It’s the remarkable resilience of colleges and independent learning providers.
I’ve been involved in vocational education and training for 25 years now and lived through seemingly endless reform. A constant has been the willingness of providers and professionals to say: “Give us the tools and we’ll do the job”.
It’s no different this time round, except we’re not working to a clear, coherent plan.
Straight after Doug Richard delivered his report, the government made a deliberate decision. Rather than draw up a detailed implementation plan, it said: “Let’s just get on with it and deal with issues as they arise.”
So we don’t know what the final apprenticeship landscape will look like. We don’t even have a firm grip on some of the things that matter most to employers and apprentices alike, such as end assessments.
What we do know is that there are living, breathing people out there whose future will be brighter because of apprenticeships. We heard from one of them — Michael — at the conference, and he stole the show.
So for the sake of all the people who need apprenticeships and all the people committed to delivering them, let’s hope we soon get a good, clear plan, the funds to deliver it, and the political will to see it through.