The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education is “looking forward to playing an even bigger role” following the publication of the Skills Bill. But how will the quango change its operation going forward? Billy Camden explores
Launched in 2017 to spearhead the government’s apprenticeship reforms, the then-known Institute for Apprenticeships has seen its responsibilities and workforce expand over the past four years.
“Technical Education” was added to the quango’s name and brief in 2019 as the authority also took over the content of T Levels and procurement for awarding organisations.
The institute had around 80 full-time staff in its first year of operation before growing to 160 in March 2019; 186 a year later; and up to 216 by March 2021 – a 170 per cent increase over four years.
And to cater for the sharp rise in workers, the institute’s annual budget from the Department for Education has shot up by 184 per cent, from £9.7 million in 2017-18 to £27.5 million in 2021-22.
The organisation appears to be preparing for another recruitment drive as it gears up for new “powers” as set out in the FE white paper and last week’s Skills Bill, such as defining and approving new categories of technical qualifications as well as reviewing those already on offer and withdrawing their approval where they are no longer performing as expected.
Two new job-sharing strategy directors, Rachel Cooper and Beth Chaudhary, were announced this week by the institute. The pair previously held the same joint role in the Cabinet Office but will come onboard to help the institute deliver on its new functions.
Their overarching goal is to make sure that “entry level and new higher technical qualifications meet employers’ skills needs and support learners into successful careers”.
The institute is also in the process of forming three new “employer-facing groups”. A job advert has gone out for a person to “lead a team of around 10 delivery experts” in this area.
A spokesperson said the purpose of the groups will be to “make sure that our work is employer facing, and properly understands different parts of the economy…it is about us listening even more to what employers say and helping them to play a bigger role”.
They explained that when the institute formed, it was organised into “functional orientated groups” but as it has matured “it has honed its processes” and is moving to a “more route-based structure”.
“As we begin to engage in the approval of technical qualifications beyond T Levels, we now believe that we could optimise our performance further by transitioning to a structure that better reflects the communities we work with closely, including sectors of the economy.
“We are therefore working on developing three teams with particular industry expertise that will embrace apprenticeships and all forms of technical qualification in an integrated and coherent fashion, for the benefit of employers, learners, apprentices and the sector as a whole.”
The spokesperson said the institute is “still refining our plans” and will be engaging with stakeholders and providing further detail in “due course”.
They were unable to give a rough estimate of how many extra staff the organisation will need to hire in total to meet the new functions set out in the Skills Bill.
An impact assessment report for the Skills Bill explained the rationale for handing new powers to the institute.
It said: “Many employers struggle to find people with the skills that they need, and these gaps will be exacerbated as we look to the future – as the pace of technological change continues, our economy adjusts following the Covid-19 pandemic, and we build a green economy.
“To ensure that technical qualifications better meet employers’ needs, we intend that they should be aligned with employer-led standards.”
The document warned the current system “does not currently have the mechanisms to ensure the reforms can be delivered such that they deliver high quality, rigorous qualifications that meet employers’ and individuals’ needs, and avoid proliferation and a ‘race to the bottom’ on quality, as identified by previous reviews of the skills market”.
It goes on to state that both Ofqual and the institute have “key roles to play” in assuring the quality of technical qualifications, but the current statutory framework for approval and regulation has “scope for unnecessary duplication, and inconsistency between the two bodies with potential impact on the quality of the qualifications and the burden on awarding organisations”.
By extending the institute’s approval powers in the Skills Bill, the “risks of duplication and inconsistency are increased”.
As such, the institute will be required to cooperate with Ofqual to create a “single approval gateway” for technical qualifications.
The institute’s new powers will allow them to determine new qualification categories and approve qualifications against “associated criteria” in the future.
It will also be allowed charge awarding bodies for qualification approval and introduce a moratorium on the approval of further qualifications where there is evidence of proliferation.
Commenting on the new responsibilities, an institute spokesperson said: “We are committed to working closely with employers and everyone across the skills sector to continue the journey of improvement that we are on.
“We are looking forward to building on our successful work so far and playing an even bigger role with employers to build a unified skills system and will make sure that we are ready to deliver.”