Driving apprenticeships success requires someone new at the wheel

Employers make better co-pilots than drivers when it comes to delivering workplace qualifications

Employers make better co-pilots than drivers when it comes to delivering workplace qualifications

3 Mar 2024, 5:00

I am at risk of offering platitudes by stating employers play a crucial role in the success of apprenticeships. Their ability to be either custodian or antagonist of quality is profound. When we talk about their role, the emphasis often sways towards the policy expectation that places them in the ‘driving seat’ of programme design. Yet in my experience, employers (except those with their own contract) are at their most impactful when sitting in the training provider’s passenger seat during programme delivery.

Research from The St Martin’s Group backs up the outcome of low involvement. Unsurprisingly, it shows the most common reason apprentices cite for leaving their programme as lack of employer support.

‘Support’ manifests in different ways: giving apprentices time off the job to learn, actively participating in progress reviews, challenging training provider practices when left wanting, noticing when apprentices are overwhelmed or demotivated, encouraging achievement of functional skills, giving formative feedback, and appreciating why careers guidance really isavaluable part of an apprenticeship. 

Ensuring this jigsaw pieces together requires a relationship between employer and provider that is multifaceted and dynamic. It’s more like rally driving than F1: it needs a driver and a co-pilot in the car – and employers make better co-pilots.

Successfully managing this relationship demands the dedication and expertise of delivery staff, whose responsibilities extend beyond just their apprentices. It is not uncommon for their duties to include guiding a line manager on providing constructive feedback or confidently holding them accountable when they fail to meet the needs of their apprentice.

Leaders who cultivate these skills within their teams understand the pivotal role they play in the success of an apprenticeship. This is because the employer’s commitment, which is crucial if we are to reduce withdrawals or delays beyond the planned end date, needs much more than just a signature at the outset.

Employer commitment needs much more than a signature at the outset

As an SME ourselves, we have noticed a shift in expectation and demand on our time. We respond to this in accordance with our values and will continue to do so, but it would be wrong to understate the effort it takes by us and the providers we work with each year to make it work in practice.

Whatever comes for FE on the other side of an election, the direction of travel for active employer participation is unlikely to be reversed and nor should it. We have experienced first-hand the significant impact our team has on developing T Level placement students and are proud of the role we play in creating meaningful apprenticeships.

Yet in truth, we have experienced mixed fortunes when it comes to the effectiveness of how well we partner with providers, with challenges on both sides. What we have noticed is the Ofsted grade has not always been a useful proxy for our experience and I am left curious as to why that is the case.

‘Employers’ are referred to just once in the inspection framework under the ‘quality of education’ aspect, highlighted under ‘Intent’. Further detail appears under the apprenticeship section but I am unconvinced that this is keeping up with a sector where employers are increasingly integral to implementation.

My aim here is not to create more work for providers; rather, it is to ensure there is regulatory recognition for the effort needed to build and manage complex relationships with diverse employers beyond the design stage.

Ofsted is a powerful voice in a system that struggles to access the funding to match the political narrative that technical education is Very Important. It is a voice that I hope can demonstrate through its thematic research that if we want FE to be successful, there are hidden costs and capabilities involved. And I hope it is a voice that will be heard by new ministers from the outset of their tenure, because big turns in the road will need to be navigated, and that’s best done with our eyes wide open.

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