Apprenticeships are a fantastic way for people to start their career or move their career up a gear. Reforms since trailblazer process started in 2013 have contributed to improvements in quality and opened apprenticeships to a wider range of people, but these gains are at risk.
Degree apprenticeships in particular have seen considerable growth in the past ten years, spurred on by the apprenticeship levy introduced in 2017. However, much has changed since IfATE was set up and the levy came in.
Covid and the cost-of-living crisis have hit apprenticeships hard as they have many spheres of life. This raises the question of whether apprenticeships as currently operated are sustainable or whether we need a change of direction.
The challenges facing apprenticeships are both operational and a matter of financial viability.
Operationally, the present system creates a major peak for assessment in the period between Easter and the summer holiday period. This is because many apprentices are recruited at the beginning of the academic year and therefore finish at the end of the ‘school’ year. This results in major bottle necks in assessing, which is frustrating for everyone and adds to the cost of delivery.
EPA assessors cannot be pulled out of thin air just for a few months of the year. We need to break this cycle and spread the peak. This could be done through recruiting apprentices throughout the year and being more flexible about the end date and ESFA reporting.
But the biggest challenge of all is around funding.
For most standards, funding has not increased to account for major inflationary pressures – some of which are up to 20 per cent. These general inflationary rises are made worse by IfATE and their route panels changing standards, which increases delivery costs while funding rates remain unchanged.
The combination of spiraling costs and capped funding is making standards financially unviable. Hence, we are already seeing organisations pull out of provision – of both training and assessment – as apprenticeships become progressively financially unsustainable.
Is the funding regime going to improve, other than marginally? The answer is surely no. I know prediction in these volatile times is extremely hard, but most people would consider it very unlikely that any significant improvement in the funding position will happen for two to three years at best. So we all need to start to get realistic, and that includes IfATE and the route panels.
The first thing to do is to immediately stop changing standards where these changes add to the cost of delivery. Second, more radically, is to modify the delivery model to maintain quality, but in a more cost-effective and efficient way for all.
In terms of training delivery, ESFA, Ofqual and IfATE need to appreciate the fact that we must move to much greater utilisation of online learning and technology. With this, we need to recognise that we cannot be held to the previous norms of guided learning hours, total qualification times and the percentage of off-site training needed to support someone becoming fully competent.
The other area for improved efficiency without a decline in quality is in assessment. The present model is conceptualised on an academic model of everyone going into an ‘exam centre’ and collectively sitting exams. This is costly in all cases. For end-point assessments, which are one-to-one or one-to-few with a significant practical element needing a lot of materials, equipment and a ‘test bay’, the costs are extremely high.
It’s time for a rethink. Technology gives us the opportunity to capture verifiable evidence throughout the period of an apprenticeship. This, with a better and more transparent gateway process, would allow us to design end-point assessments which are more focused and less expensive to run.
If we can bring down the cost of delivering apprenticeships, we can avoid them becoming increasingly unsustainable and the policy progressively failing to achieve the improvements the economy needs.
Our model is not very old, but the world has changed substantially in a short time. We must face up to the new challenges and look at all the options rather than plough on in hope a miracle.