Trailblazers can choose the body that regulates their apprenticeship standard. Only one of these is actually qualified to do so, argues Rob May

Every major skills policy at some point promises to “put employers in the driving seat”. For a department labouring under policy amnesia this has been the rhetoric of reform for at least 15 years.

The principle is sound enough, creating a supply of demand-led human capital through learning which reflects actual industrial realities and usually incorporates practical work experience.

But at some point, employers are inevitably called upon to step in and actually design the new qualifications, as Anne Milton, the current skills minister did recently in the latest rallying call from the Department for Education.

Advisory panels will be used to create the new T-levels that will be delivered from 2022. Panels are already in place across six routes, including childcare, construction and health. These panels of employers have the remit to design and develop new qualifications which will define a whole generation of learners.

Just as I wouldn’t expect a panel committee of a non-departmental, educational public body to design a jet engine, I also wouldn’t ask Rolls-Royce to design a regulated qualification

Awarding bodies are then faced with the Sisyphean task of translating plans and standards into practical, replicable assessments and taking on the accountabilities and financial burden (as this is not normally considered during the panel’s design phase).

But just as I wouldn’t expect a panel committee of a non-departmental, educational public body to design a jet engine, I also wouldn’t ask Rolls-Royce to design a regulated qualification. No offence to Rolls-Royce.

This approach continues to fundamentally misunderstand or ignore the role that Ofqual-accredited awarding organisations are already required to carry out, and which they do so diligently and successfully, despite government’s attempts to marginalise the accumulated expertise and efforts of a whole sector.

Specifically, regulated qualifications should already prepare learners for employment. Awarding organisations must already consult the users of qualifications on the content and assessment method. This is done through close, regular consultation with employers and providers during a regular cycle of design, review, focus testing and ultimately market forces. The process demonstrates to the regulator, and to the public that the qualification is fit for purpose and fit for industry.

Two problems emerge with panels of employers designing qualifications for a whole system. Firstly, the government is attracted to the big-brand corporations to confer credibility on the initiative, so a narrow and disproportionately persuasive voice emerges. These large players have very different working practices and skills needs to SMEs even though small businesses account for 99 per cent of all private-sector businesses.

Secondly, any reform of education for 14- to 19-year-olds must focus on improving vocational and technical pathways, whereas these reforms focus on changing the structure and content of qualifications, rather than on the wider system, for example stronger technical and vocational provision in schools.

What have policy makers learnt from previous reforms? To quote the late, great David Bowie, it’s how to always crash in the same car.

Rob May is CEO of the Association of Business Executives