We are in a stronger position going into this second lockdown, and alongside the challenges there are positive ways in which we can help reduce the impact on students and apprentices, writes Jennifer Coupland

I would like to start by acknowledging the huge challenges that everyone involved with apprenticeships faces as we approach a second national lockdown.

At the institute we work so closely with so many employers and apprentices that we are seeing first-hand how difficult this is, particularly for businesses on the high street, who have worked hard to make themselves Covid safe and are now having to close again.  

The institute will do everything in our power to support employers, providers, end-point assessment organisations and apprentices through this. Our key objectives will continue to be protecting the safety of everyone involved with apprenticeships and sustaining a resilient skills system that meets the needs of employers.  

And while we need to be realistic about the challenges, we also need to acknowledge some positives. We are in a stronger position in many ways going into this lockdown.

This time, the government has said that colleges, independent training providers, end-point assessment and external quality assurance organisations can keep operating, so as to help reduce the impact on students and apprentices. 

We have acquired the wisdom of having been through this once before, so government financial support packages and more established online training and assessment practices already exist.

The institute has also rolled out flexibilities for more than 100 apprenticeships that have provided fantastic support with apprenticeship completions in spite of Covid-19.

I announced back in June that these special measures, which in most cases allow for high-quality remote rather than face-to-face assessment, would be retained into the new year.

In light of the latest lockdown announcement, we have now agreed that they will be extended until the end of March to give everyone much-needed stability.

Our report published today on our latest survey, this time with 340 apprentice employers and other organisations, provides further grounds for optimism. It was carried out in September so circumstances have moved on, but there is still much from which to draw comfort.

A relatively small proportion (eight per cent) of respondents indicated that any of their apprentices had been made redundant through Covid-19.

When asked to estimate recruitment over the next 12 months, 57 per cent said they planned to recruit new employees as apprentices. This is compared to 14 per cent who said they would not and 29 per cent who did not know.

We of course understand that this latest lockdown is a further setback, but what employers told us in September demonstrates the commitment they have to the apprenticeship programme.

Some 78 per cent of respondents said the majority of their apprentices were doing some off-the-job training, up from 62 per cent in our previous survey in June.

While I am all too aware that survival, not staff training and progression, will be the top priority for many businesses, it is vitally important that the sector does everything possible to ensure learners continue to get their off-the-job training through lockdown.

The introduction of the requirement for apprentices to spend at least 20 per cent of their working time training away from the workplace has been a key driver of the improved quality for apprenticeships. It is a fantastic investment in apprentices which is exceeded in many apprenticeships. 

Employers and providers are clearly showing genuine commitment to apprenticeships and an impressive ability to adjust and innovate how they work.

The government shares that commitment and I have no doubt that apprenticeships can play a key part in our economic recovery when it comes.

We can all play our part in the meantime with helping to ensure their quality is not undermined as circumstances become more challenging.

The institute will continue to engage directly, through collective forums and through our pulse surveys, with employers and wider stakeholders throughout this crisis. We are always open to ideas and welcome feedback on what is working well and where we might improve flexibilities and our other areas of work.

I am confident that while the pandemic might dent the apprenticeship programme in the short term, the long-term commitment we have built up with employers, providers and apprentices has put us in a position of strength. I look forward to the day when we emerge together from this awful Covid cloud ready to make apprenticeships and wider technical education better than ever.