‘There is a distinction to be made between the level of an apprenticeship and the quality of that apprenticeship’

Employers are the ultimate test of whether Sir Michael Wilshaw’s criticisms of apprenticeships were justified — and Pippa Morgan thinks the business view might not quite align with the Ofsted chief inspector’s.

Sir Michael Wilshaw chose the CBI’s West Midlands Education and Skills Conference to launch an Ofsted report on the state of apprenticeships last month — hitting the headlines with an uncompromising message to all employers, school and FE providers.

We should not risk the impression that level two training investment lacks value

Beneath the headlines, there is much in the report, entitled Apprenticeships: developing skills for future prosperity, that business agrees with — not least about the value of quality apprenticeships as a route to the higher level skills that business and the economy need. There are also some areas of dispute.

Opening up routes to higher skills to more young people is an essential element in addressing the UK’s skills challenge. Being on such an apprenticeship should indeed be a ‘badge of honour’, as Sir Michael said. Only then will young people get a genuine choice, and businesses get the confidence that the current and future workforce is able to help them grow.

Government ambition to raise apprentice numbers is a real positive but sheer volume alone is not going to solve our skills challenge. For the ambitions — of government, business, and young people — to be realised, these apprenticeships must be relevant to the needs of employers while providing an opportunity for individuals to get a genuine foothold on the career ladder.

The latest data on apprenticeship starts shows there is still work to be done — with less than 4 per cent of starts at higher levels (19,300 out of 492,700). In time, this needs to grow if apprenticeships are to provide the advanced, technician-level skills needed in the sectors that are crucial to rebalancing the economy.

It’s important to acknowledge however, that there is a distinction to be made between the level of an apprenticeship and the quality of that apprenticeship. ‘Lower level’ does not necessarily mean lower quality — and vice versa. We should not risk the impression that level two training investment lacks value.

Businesses would dispute that — an apprentice ‘start’ should be exactly that — the first step on a clear route to progression.

Take Whitbread as an example of this. A third of their level two apprentices move into management roles within two years of starting their apprenticeship — for them an apprenticeship is the stepping stone into a career.

The introduction of an apprenticeship levy risks achieving quantity to the detriment of quality. It also marks an unprecedented shift in skills and skills-funding policy. Business has been clear on the risks, as well as what is needed to mitigate these; an independent, employer-led body should set and maintain high standards for apprenticeships.

Giving employers control over their levy funds and allowing them to develop high-quality apprenticeships that work for their business is the best route to facing up to growing skills gaps. This is a business critical issue — across all sectors recruiting suitably skilled candidates is a source of growing anxiety among businesses.

Combined with real employer ownership and quality assurance, we need a transformation in the quality of careers provision in schools and colleges — so that vocational options are able to achieve ‘parity of esteem’ with more traditional academic routes. Business involvement with FE providers is essential in providing a real-life component to training, ensuring advice and information are inspiring and grounded in the realities of the evolving labour market. This is essential as young people themselves report the most important influences on their career choice by a large margin are talking to people in an industry and work experience/internships.

If the government is to achieve its ambitious target of 3m new apprenticeship starts by the end of the current Parliament, vocational institutions will certainly be involved in making this a reality. Colleges currently play an invaluable role in delivering apprenticeship programmes, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

To successfully deliver relevant, quality apprenticeships that respond to the skills needs of businesses, we need to ensure that genuine employer ownership is achieved –because as Sir Michael said, “good intentions are not enough”.

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