IfA yet to review duplicate and low-skill standards

The Institute for Apprenticeships has yet to carry out any formal review of duplicate, narrow or low-skill standards – two years after being urged to do so by influential peer Lord Sainsbury.

Demands are growing for the institute to “take stock” and focus on quality rather than numbers, with 300 standards now approved for delivery and a target of 400 set for next April.

But two years after Lord Sainsbury called for a review of “all existing apprenticeship standards” at “the earliest opportunity”, the IfA remained tight-lipped when asked by FE Week what action it had taken.

It would confirm only that a limited review will begin this summer.

In his report of the independent panel on technical education, published in July 2016, the peer made clear he was concerned about standards that overlapped, were too job-specific, or lacked enough technical content to justify 20 per cent off-the-job training.

The government’s strategic guidance to the IfA, published at the time of the institute’s official launch in April 2017, also states that its core functions include “at regular intervals, reviewing published standards and assessment plans”.

However, no such review has yet taken place, despite the IfA’s boss Sir Gerry Berragan (pictured above) saying in February he was aware that there had been “some price and quality compromises made early on to get some momentum into reforms”.

An IfA spokesperson said it will “look to conduct a review of existing standards”, and has recently advertised for a ‘Standard Review Lead’ post-holder.

“The first review will take place this summer on the digital standards,” she said.

Both Sir Gerry and Ana Osbourne, the IfA’s deputy director for approvals who will be leading this summer’s review, declined FE Week’s request for an interview.

Nor would the spokesperson confirm if the review would address Lord Sainsbury’s recommendations. Instead, she said details would be announced “shortly”.

“The IfA appears to think that we should all be impressed by the number of standards they are approving and how much faster they are approving them than before,” said Tom Richmond, senior research fellow at think-tank Reform, and former senior adviser to two skills ministers.

“That is of little comfort to apprentices who are being put on narrow, often low-skill, training courses that do not offer them genuine career progression.”

Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, urged the government to take stock of the number of standards approved. He warned it would soon be well above “leading apprenticeship systems” like Germany.

“An apprentice being trained to carry out a ‘job role’ is not the same as one being trained to work in a whole industry,” he said.

FE Week’s own analysis of standards in development or approved for delivery found 26 for different manager roles from levels three to seven – even though a generic team leader/supervisor also exists.

Nine of these are at level four, including hospitality manager and facilities manager, both approved this year, and retail manager, approved in 2016.

Yet a number of overlapping level three engineering and manufacturing standards were withdrawn in March 2017 before the IfA launched. They were replaced with a catch-all engineering technician standard, covering a number of different specialisms.

This approach appears to be at odds with the IfA’s target of 400 published standards by April 2019 – part of its drive to be “faster and better”.

According to the institute’s 2018-19 business plan, it should have “due regard to appropriate coverage of the occupational maps and the priorities and diversity of the modern economy” in reaching this target.

The same business plan reveals that Ms Osbourne is tasked with “designing and implementing a long-term plan for standards review”.

Sir Gerry has also compared the number of standards ready for delivery with those of “very mature apprenticeship systems”.

“Switzerland has 249 standards and Germany has around 330,” he said.

His predecessor, Peter Lauener, conceded last year that the institute would have to tackle the overlap between different standards.

He expected there would be “somewhere in the regions of 700 to 800” standards, reflecting “links to the number of occupations”.