Jennifer Coupland reflects on the challenges of 2020 and looks ahead to what the new year will hold for apprenticeships

I recently marked my first anniversary as chief executive and could never have imagined that I would spend the vast majority of that time working from home, forever at the mercy of my Wi-Fi and remote video connection.

Covid-19 has posed huge challenges for everyone involved with our sector, on a professional and personal level, so it wouldn’t feel right to be too celebratory in what will be my final opinion piece of 2020.

I am, though, hugely encouraged by all the good news around vaccinations and, while the situation remains frightening and unsettling for many as the nation deals with ongoing outbreaks, think we can start to look forward to better times.

It is fantastic that the first wave of T Levels are progressing well and I’m really excited by our work on the new quality mark for higher technical qualifications.

I am also proud of how employers and providers have pulled together with the institute to develop and deliver flexibilities for apprenticeships. These have allowed remote working and end point assessment (EPA) to continue for learners – in spite of all the restrictions on movement – and will continue until at least the end of March to provide stability.

I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on some of our priorities for further improving apprenticeships.

A major theme supported by minister Gillian Keegan will be working out how we can better-support progression and social mobility across apprenticeships and technical education at all levels. 

We will continue to focus minds on the benefits of entry-level training and review how to open out degree-level apprenticeships to even more professions. Existing provision must not be rebadged, and the higher education sector should carefully tailor degree apprenticeships to the knowledge, skills and behaviours (KSBs) identified by employers.

And we don’t just want to boost upward progression. The institute is looking at how to make it easier for people to move across professions. This can be achieved through improving understanding of how KSBs apply across occupational routes, making training options faster and clearer for people – in particular those who’ve lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and need to take their careers in a new direction.

Apprenticeships must be ready and able to support economic recovery, when that time comes. It isn’t acceptable for them to lose credibility with employers. The institute is looking at a new data-driven revisions prioritisation system to identify which apprenticeships need looking at first. We will also keep a close eye on emerging skills needs, particularly in new green technologies, which will be central to the recovery.

While the vast majority of people recently surveyed by our panel of apprentices said they would recommend their apprenticeship to others, the responses also reaffirmed to us that more needs to be done to improve the quality of training and preparation for assessment. A clearer commitment statement is needed, which carries more authority among employers and providers, spelling out what apprentices have every right to expect. We will progress this with the government and other partners on the Quality Alliance. 

The institute is determined to get things right with our review of how we recommend funding bands for apprenticeships. We will also continue with simplifying delivery of external quality assurance (EQA) for EPA to just Ofqual or, for integrated degree apprenticeships, the Office for Students (OfS), under wider oversight of the Institute. We have important work to do on setting up a new directory of professional and employer-led organisations for Ofqual and OfS to draw on industry expertise. This will keep employers at the heart of protecting quality in apprenticeships.  

We will carry on learning lessons from the pandemic and our flexibilities. These have shown that carefully designed and monitored remote working and aligned EPA can work well. We recently announced plans to simplify and strengthen EPA for around 30 apprenticeships, where the statutory regulator has an established professional competency test, and plan to roll this out further.

We are not out of the woods yet with Covid-19 and our focus will remain until then on helping to keep everyone as safe as possible.

There will be more tough challenges ahead, but I hope the vaccination rollout will be the start of better things. I wish you all a happy Christmas and look forward to returning next year refreshed and ready to embark on a year of positive change and recovery.