I am proud of having been involved in apprenticeships for over 20 years, but over the past year or so, I have found myself joining the ranks of the moaners.
Without realising it, I started to listen to the bad press linked to FE, Independent Training Providers, and apprenticeships in general. I even started to moan about the ongoing changes in funding requirements and the seeming conflict between compliance and quality.
But now I am, once again, a champion of apprenticeships and proclaiming loudly my support for them.
What has brought about this change?
Last week, I had the privilege of visiting China. I met some wonderful people, including a group at Sindhu College, who had visited our Westminster Kingsway College campus three years previously. They were very impressed with the culinary provision and in particular, they highlighted how much they had learnt about the levels of employer engagement with the curriculum. It was clearly a light bulb moment for them as education and industry acted in silos in China.
On their return to their college, they immediately implemented a plan to engage their local large employers into their provision and took the best examples of partnership. Three years later, their 3-year Culinary Major has significantly grown in numbers and reputation and is used as a model for other schools on how to effectively involve employers and maximise employment opportunities for students.
I met two other colleges and in each case they had studied our apprenticeship provision and were keen to learn more. They have compared our system favourably with those in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. They appreciate ours the most, due to the robust systems, processes, formal qualifications and quality checks that we have in place.
I have learnt to remember all the positives about our apprenticeships from my Chinese hosts.
Yes, the bureaucracy regarding compliance can be frustrating, but without it, how could we ensure that funding is used appropriately?
Yes, quality checks by Awarding Bodies and Ofsted can be challenging, but without them how would we maintain a high-quality system and be certain what good looks like?
Yes, the restrictions on 20% off-the-job training requirements involve a lot more commitment, but without the requirement for substantive learning, how would be able to ensure apprenticeships add real value, rather than simply accrediting current competency?
Meeting all of these requirements is a challenge but they are essential to ensuring that our Apprenticeships have the right value to us, the Apprentice and the Employers.
Many of us will remember the days of Train to Gain. Whilst the intention of the offer was absolutely right (to support everyone to improve their employment and careers through Learning in the Workplace, the reality turned into something else entirely. When restrictions in eligibility were removed, thousands of individuals who were already competent in their jobs, were enrolled, assessed and certificated, without any development of skills etc. We need to ensure that the lessons are learnt and not repeated.
It is difficult to do what is right, to the level required within an unstable funding environment. I am fortunate. I work for a large FE Group which has a Not-for-Profit ethos and has sufficient income and reserves to support the Apprenticeship programme through periods of change and uncertainty, which seems to be constant!
FE Apprenticeship Provision has changed significantly over the last 5 years. Historically it was an addition to the main provision and had to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the academic provision. This linked closely with set academic years and often new apprentices only starting in September – clearly not very employer responsive.
The introduction of the Levy and the change in rules requiring subcontracting have forced many colleges to look closely at their provision and revise their strategy.
Now, in many cases, FE College provision is as flexible as that of ITP’s. The temptation for some has been to cover everything an employer may require, however, we are starting to see the creation of specialisms across many colleges. Some are linked to key sites, like our own Culinary Apprenticeships on our Victoria site for Westminster Kingsway College, and Rail Engineering Apprenticeships at our Enfield site for CONEL. However, colleges have also evolved their provision to include much more blended learning and increasing the geographical boundaries for their provision. An excellent example of this is the Grant Thornton Leadership Academy with Activate Learning – employers and FE colleges working together on a national provision which is fit for purpose.
What we haven’t cracked yet, is working as a collegiate group, to improve Apprenticeships and to promote the positive impact and outcomes.
It is time to shout about what we do and drown out the negative and the naysayers with the numerous examples of where good quality apprenticeship provision has changed individual lives.
We need to remember to value our education, not to take for granted the reasons for the quality of provision.