City & Guilds wants a universal framework for quality standards applied throughout FE inspections, says Kirstie Donnelly

As all of us working in technical and vocational education know that apprenticeships provide a key skills solution for employers and an important route into work. Seemingly, the government agrees and often talks about apprenticeships in glowing terms, using phrases such as “gold standard”, “world class” and “quality first”.  

What does it actually mean, though, to create and deliver a quality apprenticeship system that provides the right returns for businesses and people? This is a question we asked ourselves five years ago, alongside our new Industry Skills Board (ISB).

In the intervening years we’ve seen huge change in the apprenticeship system with the introduction of new standards, end-point assessment and, of course, the apprenticeship levy. Political and economic turmoil has also forced businesses to think differently about recruitment. Given it’s such an important time for apprenticeships, it feels like the right time to reflect on whether the system is working as it should and what needs to change to make it better.   

This week, to coincide with the Annual Apprenticeships Conference, we are launching the latest version of our Making Apprenticeships Work report. This builds on the quality framework we developed four years ago and provides updated recommendations for all involved in delivering apprenticeships.

There have been some wins since 2014 when we advocated for an independent employer-led body to have central oversight of apprenticeships. What actually materialised is the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE), which is a step in the right direction, if not quite the arm’s-length independent-from-government body that we hoped for.

We would also have liked more change and still find ourselves calling for better promotion of apprenticeships in schools and through recruitment channels, as we all know that there simply aren’t enough people being signposted towards apprenticeships.

The central theme of our first and latest report, however, is the quality framework for apprenticeships.

The recent National Audit Office (NAO) report quite rightly highlighted a real concern with the system as it is today, and recommended a greater government focus on outlining the success measures against which an apprenticeship programme should be measured, as well as a clear indication of how it brings value to employers and individuals.

This value attached to an apprenticeship is at the core of our quality framework. We believe that for an apprenticeship to be of high quality, it must be deemed intrinsically demanding and worthwhile by employers and employees.

There needs to be more meaningful engagement with employers

Not only that, but new apprentices must have the support of existing employees, who provide feedback within a defined learning programme. Apprenticeships are also subject to reliable, valid and robust independent end-point assessment, and apprentices should be aware of a clear career progression route beyond their apprenticeship.

To support this, we are recommending that a universal framework for quality standards is applied throughout all Ofsted, Education and Skills Funding Agency and external quality assurance organisation inspections. 

Our report has coincided with IfATE’s publication of its Quality Strategy, which appears to express an intention rather than outline concrete actions. In this time of uncertainty, I would hope that the institute will call for a common quality framework that will match its rhetoric.

First, however, there needs to be more meaningful engagement with employers to understand how the system is working for those who invest in it. We know that there are big issues stopping many employers from benefiting from apprenticeships and until these are tackled, no matter how high-quality the system, it won’t have the desired impact unless businesses actually engage with it.

It is only by working collaboratively with education providers and employers, and making changes that unlock the power of apprenticeships, that the government will be able to fully deliver the “world-class” quality system that we so desperately need.

City & Guilds Group’s “Making Apprenticeships Work” report can be viewed and downloaded here