There is a disconnect between the interests of the education and skills establishment, and the needs of employers, says Jane Scott Paul

The consistent mantra of successive governments in designing skills policy has been employer leadership. If we are to create a highly skilled, competitive economy, industry and employers must take the lead as they understand the real skill needs.

So, given that this consensus is apparently so embedded, why have we still not got it right?

The UK chartered accountancy bodies founded the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), identifying the need to develop competent accounting staff and provide professional progression. That was more than 30 years ago and AAT has grown to a membership of 125,000.

The credibility and reputation of AAT depends on our ability to deliver the skilled, ethical accountancy professionals that employers want.

We have to be in a constant dialogue with employers to ensure our core professional qualifications remain rigorous and relevant. Our success is demonstrated through 600 accredited employers in all sectors of the economy, and the thousands of businesses that recognise our qualifications as a benchmark standard.

Where the needs of the employer are notionally paramount, this should be enough. But we also have to meet the requirements of the regulator. Too often we have had to reshape our qualifications for no other purpose than to meet the latest fad of government and regulators — at considerable cost and with no discernable benefit to learners or employers. We have had to adapt to NVQs, the Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF), FE performance tables and the Specification for Apprenticeship Standards in England (SASE). The move to the QCF alone cost AAT nearly £1m.

One recent regulatory change demonstrates this misalignment more clearly than any other: the decision to amend the SASE for higher apprenticeships – and specifically to increase the minimum qualification credits required at level four from 37 to 90.

Too often we have had to reshape our qualifications for no other purpose than to meet the latest fad of government and regulators”

AAT has successfully delivered apprenticeships from the outset, particularly at the higher levels that have been prioritised by the government. In 2011/12, there were more than 2,000 starts on the higher apprenticeship in accountancy, which, since its inception, had the highest take-up of any level four apprenticeship.

But this framework has 51 credits and so no longer meets the SASE requirement. We are being forced to change something that demonstrably meets the needs of employers to meet the arbitrary requirements of regulation.

So who did the National Apprenticeship Service bring in to carry out the review? Not employers, but the Universities Vocational Awards Council: the same universities that are facing falling demand.

This crude attempt to align vocational and academic pathways is completely inappropriate. We are not comparing like with like.

Apprentices are not university students. They learn by doing at work. SASE measures only formal qualification-related credits. The skills and experience that apprentices attain through working — invaluable to them and to employers — receive no credit value at all.

When the consultation was opened on this change, AAT asked a broad sample of firms who had employed accountancy apprentices if they knew how many credits it was allocated — not one of them did, nor did they see it as relevant. This mismatch of cultures has again downgraded the voice of the employer.  A greater irony is that, irrespective of notional credits, the AAT level four is already recognised by many universities and allows direct access to the second year of relevant degrees.

Skills policy is a hot topic, with all parties talking about putting employers in the driver’s seat.

My plea is to have the courage of your convictions, let employers drive but get rid of the road blocks put in their way by a skills bureaucracy that only pays lip service to employers’ expertise and needs.

Jane Scott Paul, chief executive of Association of Accounting Technicians 

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