The chaos of apprenticeship reform

Apprenticeships might be at the heart of the Government’s industrial strategy, but delays in the register of approved providers raise questions about its vision for the future, says Stephen Evans

Having worked in government, I know that the announcement of a policy can seem like the end of the process. An announcement follows a long period of analysis, getting buy-in from ministers and approval from relevant committees and others.

In practice,  the announcement is only the start of the process – any policy is only as good as its implementation. That’s what we’re discovering with current apprenticeship reforms.

No-one doubts the government’s ambition: it will be stretching to deliver three million by 2020 and the minister is clearly committed to changing the culture. Yet that ambition will founder if implementation is not well thought through or delivered.

The register of apprenticeship training providers really has become the hokey-cokey of procurement processes – delays and condensed timescales have been compounded by worries over whether new entrants can deliver quality training. Now added to that are new processes that seem designed mainly to allow those that have missed out to have another go, because of the controversy the results have stirred up.

None of this fills me with confidence that we’re all systems go for what will be the biggest change to apprenticeships perhaps for a generation.

So here are four things that need to happen now to make this right.

None of this fills me with confidence that we’re all systems go

Have a clear vision. It’s difficult from the outside to discern what the government’s overall vision for the provider landscape is.

For example, does it think that all colleges should be apprenticeship providers? Does it want lots of new entrants, or does it think the current provider base is likely to match employer need? Does it want a smaller number of larger providers or a greater diversity of provision? This is about a shift from procurement to commissioning. And it links to other areas, like advanced learner loans, devolution in some areas, and area reviews. Too often these changes are fragmented and risk becoming less than the sum of their parts.

Set realistic timelines and stick to them. My experience is that commissioning processes always take longer than you think they will. The process is already delayed – we now need a clear timeline of next steps. That’s much easier with a clear vision of what the system should look like. We cannot get this close to reforms and still not be clear about who can deliver what – it takes time to build and maintain relationships.

Encourage new providers who can add value. It’s important that new providers are able to establish themselves and start delivering apprenticeships.

But on the face of it, it is difficult to see how some of the new providers on the register have got there. FE Week has highlighted a number of cases where new providers don’t seem to have a website or a track record in this or any other field. This looks like a massive risk. It should be clear what new (and existing) providers are going to bring to the party.

Be clear about potential exit of providers from the market. Just because a provider has had an allocation in the past, it does not necessarily mean they should have one in the future. Providers should be approved if they can deliver the training that employers and individuals want and that meets the ambitions of the apprenticeship programmes. But the absence of a clear vision and processes risks leading to pressure to create new opportunities for these displaced providers, which is exactly what seems to have happened. There should be a level playing field for all types of providers.

The process at the moment feels simultaneously rushed, delayed and chaotic. It is not a sign of success that, immediately after some surprising results, a second bite of the cherry has been offered. And that, at this stage in the year, we are still waiting for the non-levy allocation results.

I’m still excited and optimistic about apprenticeships. I still think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a real change.

To grasp it, the Department for Education needs to get a grip and set out a compelling vision and a well thought through process with a clear and realistic timetable.


Stephen Evans is CEO of the Learning and Work Institute

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