For two years, employers have been working hard on the new technical education panels – the government’s offer to pay professionals to do the same undervalues their contribution, says Iain Mackinnon.

This is all very odd. The Department for Education wants to waste our money paying for expertise it could get free of charge. In doing so, it’s undermining and undervaluing the contribution of the many employers who currently work for free in Trailblazer groups. And it’s weakening the principle of employer leadership, which has rightly been a central plank of the apprenticeship reforms.

What’s got me annoyed is the department’s recent advert for Technical Education Panels of Professionals. It ought to be uncontroversial. This is the next step in implementing Lord Sainsbury’s report on technical education, moving on from high-level aspiration (which everyone applauds) to sector experts knuckling down to the nitty-gritty of defining standards, which is where it will get difficult.

Employers often get a lot of stick in the skills world, and of course there are some who evade their responsibilities, cut corners, and game any opportunity they can

But why offer to pay? What does the department think employers have been doing for the last few years in Trailblazer groups? In the six I’m involved with in the maritime sector, employers turn up again and again to slog through the detail of creating new standards for apprenticeships, then the supporting assessment plan, and none of them gets paid extra to do so. Yet still they come, because they’re committed to making apprenticeships work in their sector.

One of the groups I support is comprised entirely of small companies in the workboat sector (high-spec boats with a crew of two or three, which support the offshore energy industry or construction projects). They meet on Merseyside or in Southampton, and in both cases most of the members have to travel long distances. We typically meet for four hours, so each of them is giving up a day after you factor in the travel. Yet still they come.

Employers often get a lot of stick in the skills world, and of course there are some who evade their responsibilities, cut corners, and game any opportunity they can. But there are plenty more who give a lot of time to the pretty thankless task of defining standards, shaping apprenticeships, and improving training in their sectors.

The DfE doesn’t need to pay. It can, and does, get all this huge – and hugely valuable – work for free.

So why pay? The clue may lie in the shift of emphasis from “employers in the driving seat” to “panels of professionals”. The DfE has confirmed to me that it’s “not about watering down the commitment for an employer-led system”, but that it “felt it was important to have representatives from professionals and trade bodies who also have experience of working on industry standards”.

I agree, but why pay? They will and do turn up anyway for Trailblazer groups. It’s their job: influencing discussions like these is central to what they do.

And we need to keep the focus on employers. I agree with the government’s mantra that the these reforms should be employer-led, even if it doesn’t always feel like it; employers may be in the driving seat, but DfE’s in charge of the Highway Code. This latest twist does feel like it’s weakening that commitment.

In one of the Trailblazer groups I’m involved with, we have two colleges, two trade unions, a professional body, the sector regulator, the awarding body we use, and two sector skill bodies, plus a good range of employers and two employer co-chairs to share the load.

We all work together because we want to create a good set of apprenticeships that will appeal to employers, and which will get more of them to take on apprentices.

We’ve been going two years now, and still they come. Despite the time cost – which is far greater than any of us imagined – and despite the frustrations – ditto – still they come.

I doubt very much that the maritime sector is unusual. The DfE has misjudged this, and undervalued the voluntary commitment of so many. It doesn’t need to pay. And it’ll stay true to the principle of employer leadership if it doesn’t.


Iain Mackinnon is managing director at The Mackinnon Partnership

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