The future of apprenticeships was debated by the sector at FE Weekend last Friday. The summer conference, hosted at Morley College, was FE Week’s first event looking at the latest updates and policy developments surrounding apprenticeships.

The agenda included speeches on various aspects of apprenticeships, such as funding frameworks, minimum durations and subcontracting. One highlight of the day was the panel debate under the title of ‘What would you say to Doug Richards?’ with speakers from NIACE, Ofsted and NAS, as well as questions and comments from the audience.

Matthew Coffey, national director of skills and learning for Ofsted, kicked off the debate by using the example of his teenage daughter. “The advice that was given to my youngest daughter about her post-16 opportunities was very clear and unequivocal, ‘you will stay on at sixth form’.

“And despite that advice – and perhaps because of what her Dad does – she’s enjoying her apprenticeship, thank you very much.”

He highlighted his concerns about the duration of apprenticeships and the focus on assessment, but also discussed the issues around subcontracting. One key point that was raised that Ofsted have not found a correlation between management fees charged and the quality of service delivered, and furthermore, that the cost of these fees can have a negative impact on apprentices due to reduced staff and visits.

The debate was continued by David Hughes, CEO of NIACE, who joked that he had already spent 10 minutes with Doug Richards and aimed to share with delegates a more eloquent version of the advice he had given him. His speech entailed 5 main elements: apprenticeships are an education; they are for adults too; fair access benefits all; apprentices deserve the best; and listening works.

There is very little communication between the college that is delivering the education, and the employer that is delivering the on-the-job training

It was unsurprising that Mr Hughes was particularly passionate on the issue of fair access for all learners, regardless of age, and voiced his concerns about reduced government funding for 25+ apprentices.

Mr Hughes said the obsession with age needed to be “kicked into touch”, and that the government should be prioritising learners based on their experience of the workplace and phase of their life.

“There are three principle stages – the first job, promotion and change of career, and the education and skills gained from an apprenticeship are vital at all three,” he said. “Another problem is when people talk about return of investment, and when the treasury says that we should invest more in 16-18 year old apprenticeships because the return is over a working lifetime of 40-50 years.

“The government needs to see a wider definition of return, as the current argument that older apprentices have less of a return ignores the economic impact that upskilling or reskilling has on that apprentice’s family, their community, their health, the duration of their working life and that impact on their pension and retirement.”

The final speaker of the panel was Karen Woodward, divisions’ director of apprenticeships for NAS. Her speech focused on the need for clarity on the definition of an apprenticeship and the roles that colleges and employers play.

“A great apprenticeship entwines good quality education with strong employer commitment to the development of people and the skills they gain in the workplace,” she said.

“But there is very little communication between the college that is delivering the education, and the employer that is delivering the on-the-job training.”

Mrs Woodward added that funding was also an issue for the sector, especially when it came to employers contributing to an apprenticeship scheme in-kind or in cash.

“We need to be clear about who’s paying whom for what,” she said.

The crux of the debate was summarised by Mrs Woodward’s closing remarks; that when it comes to apprenticeships “we have much to be proud of, but there are still many lessons to learn.”


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  1. I am in total agreement with Matthew Coffey, I had an ‘enlightening’ conversation with the Head of Sixth Form at a school where I am a Parent Governor. When I asked whether students were informed about Apprenticeships I was told (in no uncertain terms) “Dont be silly, we have Sixth Form places to fill, why would be tell them about something that could stop us filling those places!”.

    After catching my breath and counting to ten I then asked when (honest) CV/employability training took place to which she replied “Not until the end of Year 12, if they knew how to put together a CV before that, then they would apply for jobs instead of coming into our Sixth Form!”.