Government’s recent apprenticeship reforms were well-intentioned but miscalculated, says Tom Richmond, co-author of today’s Policy Exchange report, ‘The skills we need, and why we don’t have them’.

“No matter who I speak with, when I mention apprenticeships people react warmly.” So said Doug Richard in his review of apprenticeships back in 2012. This warmth ensures that whenever a politician declares their commitment to supporting or expanding apprenticeships, they can be assured of an equally positive response.

But what if apprenticeships weren’t always as beneficial as they might appear? What if apprenticeships were not always the dynamic and valuable choice for young people and adults that you assumed them to be? What if everything you knew about apprenticeships was wrong? The report that I have written with the Policy Exchange think tank poses precisely these questions.

Since Doug Richard’s review, the government has quietly but systematically been reforming our apprenticeship system. In order to truly understand the impact of the government’s actions, you have to stop fretting over the apprenticeship levy or subcontracting arrangements and instead take a long hard look under the bonnet of these reforms. Our conclusion is that in too many areas, the laudable ambition of high-quality apprenticeships across the economy has not been met.

The reform programme has been beset by weaknesses and miscalculations

Some of the apprenticeships designed by trailblazers are excellent and promote the kind of training that embodies apprenticeships in this country and abroad. However, we found that the reform programme has been beset by weaknesses and miscalculations that have undermined its intentions.

To be clear, an ‘apprenticeship’ is not a synonym for ‘training’. It is an education programme that focuses on systematic long-term training both on- and off-the-job in a new and skilled occupation. Our report has identified many of the new apprenticeship standards – perhaps as many as a third – that do not meet the definition of an apprenticeship used in other countries or historically in this country.

We found examples of standards where the content is insufficient to meet skills needs, or relates to a low-skill occupation – contrary to the government’s stated intention that every new apprenticeship standard should be in a highly skilled role. We came across standards that we estimate require only a few weeks of training. We identified new standards that could more accurately be deemed professional development courses for existing staff, and which do not help a learner into a new role or responsibility. What’s more, several standards duplicated others, either across different areas, or between Level 2 and Level 3.

Our report also demonstrates how the speed with which the government pushed through their reforms has lessened the opportunities to address these concerns over apprenticeship quality. As FE Week has shown already, the arrangements for ‘end-point assessments’ for apprentices have resulted in some organisations who lack any prior assessment experience being put in charge without any agency, regulator or government department monitoring them. The government’s requirement that new apprenticeships must contain 20% off-the-job training is not consistently enforced, while previous commitments that the assessments used for new apprenticeships will be valid, reliable and judged independently ought to have received much more attention.

If you want to understand how such a well-intentioned set of reforms to a much-loved educational brand could have produced such mixed results, the report we have published today is required reading. Our estimate is that without change, £500 million pounds a year by 2020 could be spent on apprenticeships which are, in fact, not apprenticeships at all.  There is too much at stake, both educationally and financially, to allow these reforms to continue without changes.

Robert Halfon and the newly unified Department for Education have a real opportunity here but it will require relentlessly focussing on high-quality apprenticeships above all else, alongside reforming the way in which apprenticeships are designed, bringing Ofqual in to regulate all assessments and giving more power and true independence to the new Institute of Apprenticeships. 

A skills system in a country that works for everyone, not just a privileged few, has the potential to do so much better. Our report sets out how it can be done.


By Tom Richmond, sixth-form college teacher and former senior adviser to skills ministers Nick Boles and Matt Hancock

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