Apprenticeships have improved in the last 20 years, but not quite going in the right direction. What are we missing, and what is the answer?

It seems every day we hear that apprenticeship provision is not going in the right direction, a large provider is in administration, or there are issues around key training providers in specific sectors. So, what is going wrong, and how can it be resolved?

Having worked with training providers for close to 20 years, it seems that apprenticeships have improved from the bad old days of Train2Gain, where the ‘stack ’em high’ attitude led to achievement rates as low as 40%. There were stories of providers descending on shopping centres to sign up staff on “free training” with no perceived value.

The largest sector, Care, was the haunt of unscrupulous employers colluding with willing training providers to use apprentices as cheap labour. Though it seems that at least one provider did not learn that lesson, apprenticeships are now seen as a genuine alternative to going to university or, as many universities are now delivering degree apprenticeships, a way to gain a degree without nose-diving into debt.

Better, but…

Recently, I found myself explaining the balance that Training Providers find between achievement and profit by recalling one of the more obscure lectures at University, examining determinism versus possibilism. I remember the statement that it would be possible to grow potatoes on the moon given enough time and money. I remembered this because it seems China is planning to do just that. Yet, seemingly, getting an acceptable achievement rate for apprenticeships is still only a dream, with the headline figure declining below 60%.

Recent articles and reports are not pleasant reading. The Ofsted Chief Inspector stated that the quality of apprenticeships was “sticking” rather than going forward, and the Ofsted 2020 annual report stating that apprenticeships provision in FE was the “weakest”, with too many judged inadequate (10%).

How can this be when apprenticeship providers are excellent at delivering the technical qualification? A report from Pearson/CBI 2019 Skills Survey found the 70% of companies were happy with the technical ability of apprentices. When I read this, I could hear the collective back slapping of the apprenticeship sector. Unfortunately, it seems many decided to stop reading there and wholly ignored the following finding that 40% were not so happy with the character and behaviours of school leavers and apprentices.

‘That is not our job, surely!’ I hear them cry.

But, you see, it is!

An opportunity missed

The apprenticeship standards were an opportunity for employers to define what they needed to create a genuinely rounded apprentice. In recognition of the findings from this survey and copious other research, they included behaviours. Yet, having been involved in a few trailblazer groups in the past and reading through more than a few standards, I can say with total confidence that very few contributors, including the employers, understood what is meant by behaviours and character.

The consequence of this ill-conceived understanding of behaviour and character? Quite a lot of ‘copy and paste’ from what has been done before. So, we have ill-designed standards combined with training providers who either ignore or do not have the expertise to deliver the softer side of the new standards.

There is quite a firestorm brewing.

Pour on the additional fuel of new Ofsted focus points around attitude and personal development, and you have the perfect ingredients for an inferno.

The latest annual report supports this growing issue for training providers and employers. It found that; “staff do not train apprentices to develop enough new knowledge, skills and behaviours as part of their apprenticeship, instead merely accrediting existing skills that they already have”. Training providers audited pre-existing behaviours and did not take responsibility for delivering learning for new, better behaviours.

There is an obfuscation of responsibility for the delivery of this learning within the apprenticeship course structure. The apprenticeship sector can hope that this will all go away, but it will not. There is a reason why behaviours were included; technically proficient apprentices are useless if they cannot adapt effectively to the work environment or if they struggle in life.

What is the answer, then?

If we want great apprenticeship programmes producing well-rounded apprentices, we need to embrace all components equally.

Development of Character and Behaviours within young people is not a given, it must be nurtured. Providers cannot perceive it as an ‘also-ran’ but must give it parity with the technical skills.

The upside would be higher achievement percentages. After all, it is proven that mentoring students in any environment can produce drastically higher achievement.

It is understandable that Levy is seen as a tax, but using it to certify existing skills doesn’t make sense. Productivity gains in the UK are still sluggish, and the rapid change in the economic realities has been accelerated by Brexit and Covid. Utilise the Levy to create new skills in new and existing staff.

Finally, we need to recognise the value of great apprenticeships for both the learners and employers and the actual cost of failure for the individual, the company, and the UK economy.