Reforms to apprenticeships could be leaving behind the lessons learned by the UKCES in the development of NOS, government adviser Nigel Whitehead warned in the last edition of FE Week. Simon Perryman picks up on the issue.

As we enter 2016, I remain an optimist for the UK skills system. Much of what we do is excellent, the budget settlement wasn’t as dreadful as some had predicted, the idea of a new style levy will certainly energise apprenticeship uptake and the area-based review process, together with greater devolution, is a sensible policy response in a challenging world.

Other countries look to the UK as an exemplar of effective and pragmatic employer engagement. They admire our labour market information (LMI), copy our occupational standards and competence-based approach to vocational education and try, but rarely have the courage to develop, employer-owned institutions like the UKCES and sector skills councils (SSCs). In particular, they envy our apprenticeships as the glue that binds employers and education together to support the proper introduction of young people into the world of work. They admire our system for its pragmatism and adaptability.

The Government was right that apprenticeships and standards needed to be adapted and refreshed. The challenge as ever will be whether we can effectively execute this raft of new policy. It worries me when I hear Nigel Whitehead from BAE Systems and a UKCES Commissioner, raising concerns on a public platform about occupational standards.

It is particularly disappointing that the Government in England seems to place so little value on NOS, when internationally they are held in the highest regard along with the rest of our competence-based approach to technical and vocational education.
Trailblazer work has added new energy to the standards debate and has been effective at engaging employers. Managed sensibly, Trailblazer standards can provide a valuable ‘front end’ to NOS, testing their relevance and enhancing their value. But, it seems curious that the Government continues to deny the importance of having UK-wide standards and fails to acknowledge the importance of SSCs in doing the ‘leg work’ of turning Trailblazer standards into apprenticeships that can be assessed.

Might it also have been better if we had started with a ‘road map’ of the occupations that needed to be covered rather than the ‘making-it-up-as-we-go-along’ approach to policy making that has led to proliferation and has been so frustrating for employers?
Shouldn’t we now be actively supporting SSCs in reaching out to their employers to co-ordinate Trailblazer work and its integration with NOS to retain our UK-wide system and make sure the new apprenticeships are ready for 2017?

Then there is the wider issue of delivering apprenticeships effectively. Is the Skills Funding Agency capable of delivering the new online Digital Apprenticeship Service? Its track record on IT and data collection hardly gives room for confidence.

Are colleges going to be able to step up quickly enough to take on the challenge of direct delivery. We are ready at Barnsley, with one of the best apprenticeship records in the country, but it would be good to have levy policy nailed down so we know what we are aiming at.

Just who is going to supply the energy to bring the new apprenticeship and levy system to life without totally confusing the business community? I hope Government creates an Institute for Apprenticeships that has employer leadership, the vision, the LMI and the partnership skills to continue to build a quality apprenticeship system for the UK. A system based on UK-wide consensus over a set of coherent occupational pathways, incorporating the best of Trailblazer standards and NOS for each part of the economy, supported by effective local brokerage to help bring education and business together.

I do remain optimistic for skills in the UK, but there is much we need to do together in 2016 to turn policy intent into practical reality if we want to continue to have an apprenticeship system that delivers quality as well as volume.

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