We can’t level up by blocking young people’s progress

Restrictions on apprenticeship course requirements are so inconsistent they’re blocking an entire generation of potential workers from levelling up, writes Joe Crossley

Restrictions on apprenticeship course requirements are so inconsistent they’re blocking an entire generation of potential workers from levelling up, writes Joe Crossley

15 Oct 2022, 5:00

I think most people understand that different jobs require different skillsets. A brain surgeon might be the best doctor in a hospital but could be totally unable to change a car tyre. A journalist could be an award-winning wordsmith, but not have the skills to cook in a busy restaurant.

People look for work in the areas in which they perform best. This is not a revelation.

The problem with our qualifications system is that at the start of the career ladder, we expect everyone to be good at everything. That is to say, to begin training in any specialist area, we demand proficiency in a standard set of sometimes unrelated skills.

Take Andrew, a level 2 health and social care apprentice. To become qualified, we require Andrew to pass a level 1 English and maths functional skills test.  

Or Sarah, a level 3 childcare apprentice. Or Eleanor, a level 3 accountancy apprentice. Without a level 2 English and maths functional skills test, neither can become a qualified apprentice in their chosen field.  

Why is a childcare worker required to have the same level of maths competency as a qualified accountant? And how is this levelling up?

We can all see the value in functional mathematical skills. But does Sarah need to achieve the same level as an accountancy apprentice to provide high-quality care effectively, professionally, and enthusiastically? I don’t think so.

Could she end up abandoning what should be an achievable dream for a long-lasting career in childcare because of an arbitrary exam certificate? Yes. And unfortunately, this is happening all over the country across a range of apprenticeship courses.

Very soon we’ll have a skills gap so wide we won’t function at all

Fixated on getting all candidates to a certain level of literacy and numeracy, the people in charge of the education system have totally forgotten – or perhaps have never realised – that sometimes real people must follow a process or a step change to achieve. And as a result, very soon we’ll have a skills gap so wide we won’t function at all.

We are driving a new generation of potential skilled workers out of qualifications and further away from the labour market. They are losing out on opportunities due to restrictions in apprenticeship training requirements, and I would like to hear from policy makers who can explain it.

Why is the implementation of obscure maths exam targets so important? And how exactly will the certificate unlock a level of competence in childcare, social care or even construction that wouldn’t be possible without it?

As someone who left school at 16 and followed a non-traditional career path, one step at a time, to being CEO of one of the UK’s leading learning providers, I know the value in meeting a candidate where they are.

If we really want to achieve ‘levelling up’ we have to work with new apprentices collaboratively towards personalised goals that bring them up a level or two from where they were when they started and build from there. People are not machines, and no two candidates are the same.

In fact, it is possible that we do more harm to the numeracy and literacy potential of many candidates by insisting on grade requirements when they are not yet ready to achieve them. Using maths and English as a barrier to the professions they aspire to is not likely to encourage future engagement.

The UK is teetering on the edge of a huge skills gap and workforce crisis. In order to keep the country running and fill key worker roles, government needs to focus less on attainment statistics and more on progress targets.  

There is little value to be gained from blocking the path of new starters with illogical course requirements. Individualised learning at an achievable pace and intensity is the key to levelling up.

And it’s not a secret either; it’s time we hold ministers to account on this one.

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One comment

  1. Tony Holloway

    Well said, with further spending cuts in the pipe line, this government can’t expect to keep raising the bar and spending less. Levelling up does not need more money to unlock potential it just needs less bureaucracy and more common sense. The funding for functional skills is embarrassing and now providers are seeing increasing levels of young people coming through with less literacy and numeracy skills owing to the pandemic. Where is the catch up funding for students that have already left school and just passed on to FE/ITPs. Whilst a more lenient approach has been applied to GSCEs and A Levels, functional skills have seen a significant increase in difficulty level. Why? This does not promote growth, it just leaves the most disadvantaged worse off