As the sector celebrates apprenticeships, Phil Romain looks at what makes for a good one.

My passion for apprenticeships stems from my own experiences.

Some apprenticeship schemes I have inspected are world-beaters and, dare I say, better than Germany’s — but far too many are not”

I was fortunate to have had an outstanding apprenticeship in a company where many of the directors and senior managers were ex-apprentices themselves.

This led me to a career in engineering, to managing a top apprenticeship programme, to writing one of the first modern apprenticeship frameworks and eventually to being the national lead for apprenticeships with Ofsted.

I started my apprenticeship when they were considered established career paths, something many young people undertook when they left school.

The Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s Annual Report stated that apprenticeships need to improve, but let’s start with a reality check.

When I wrote the first modern apprenticeship for shipbuilding, apprenticeships were rarely mentioned. Most people would say things like: “apprenticeships — what a shame there aren’t any now.”

Thankfully, times have changed and National Apprenticeship Week provides an opportunity to promote their benefits.

Around half a million people started an apprenticeship last year and places are fiercely competitive.

Some apprenticeship schemes I have inspected are world-beaters and, dare I say, better than Germany’s — but far too many are not.

So I want to look under the skin at the DNA of good apprenticeships and ask what it is that is unmistakeably characteristic of the good.

Good apprenticeships offer structured, high quality training.

To some extent simply being in work will make a difference, but relying on a form of absorption by association is not enough.

Apprentices’ skills and competence need planning.

I was lucky with my apprenticeship. There was no hiding place in the workshops and design offices, I had to meet with key customers, communicate with senior managers, give presentations, and support a plethora of other activities while learning to manufacture complex systems to exacting standards.

And what drove this? Two things: a dedicated employer that was involved from the top, and training staff with the skills to plan and facilitate good training.

Encouragingly, some providers are acknowledging that their staff play a pivotal role facilitating the training and development of apprentices.

They are moving away from the simple assessment of a technical qualification to the development of the individual — planning and measuring improvements in technical skills, confidence, teamwork, customer relationships, independence, reliability and communication. These are the critical characteristics valued by employers.

Inspectors often comment on the lack of employer involvement at an apprentice’s progress review.

An employer with a clear plan of how their apprentice will develop the skills they need will be present, and vocal, at a progress review.

They will want to know what skills their apprentice has developed since their last review and the progress they are making. If an employer is not interested in their progress then something fundamental is wrong.

The common thread among good apprenticeships is the attention given to developing apprentices’ skills and knowledge at work as well as outside of it.

And the people best placed to do this are employers, through planning and support with mentors and experienced staff.

Soon employers will be in the driving seat. Or if you are as old as I am, back in the driving seat.

When I managed an apprenticeship programme I was without doubt in control. Recruiting, commissioning training, designing the programme, and selecting the best local college to provide the courses I needed.

But the DNA of good apprenticeships will not change — the characteristics of the best will be the same.

Our evidence from last year’s inspections shows little difference in the performance of different types of provider.

They often get the off-the-job training right, but improvements are needed to provide high quality, structured work-based training.

So, regardless of where the funding comes from, the challenge remains. Fortunately there are some excellent examples available and we need to learn from them.

Phil Romain, apprenticeships national lead, Ofsted

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