Friday 17 June 2016

The Institute for Apprenticeships must promote innovation and productivity

Dr Hilary Steedman has been engaged in research on apprenticeships, vocational training and labour market transitions since the early 1980s. Here she writes on the priorities for the new Institute for Apprenticeships.

In the past five years over two million individuals of working age have started an apprenticeship. Their life chances depend upon the quality and transferability of the skills standards that provide the structure for learning in apprenticeship.

Thousands of workplaces and facilitators are involved in delivering the skills embodied in apprenticeship skills standards. Effective governance is needed to ensure that, wherever the apprenticeship is provided, recognised skills and relevant knowledge have been developed and reliably assessed. This is a challenging and complex task requiring understanding of the perspectives of all the main actors - apprentices, business and the public interest.

Apprentices need the assurance that their investment in training will be recognised and rewarded. This requires monitoring of training practices in the workplace and on other training providers’ premises. The value of the apprenticeship award for the individual apprentice lies in its transferability to other workplaces and its relevance to current skill needs. Governance needs to provide for assurance on both these counts.

Businesses co-invest with apprentices in their training and have the same interest in ensuring that their skills training meets current needs. But they need more. Skills standards should anticipate skills needs arising from technical and social progress and change. Forward-looking apprenticeship programmes spread good practice and provide the foundation for raising productivity. Governance needs to ensure that skills standards are based on the best available research and understanding of technological, organisational and social change.

On behalf of society, government is the third investor in apprenticeship in recognition of the welfare returns to wider society of a skilled workforce and, in particular, their contribution to raising productivity. Government must justify and account for public spending on apprenticeships. Justification for a contribution from public funds focuses on investment in the transferable skill elements of apprenticeship that benefit wider society and not only the business in which the apprentice is trained.

The current Conservative government and its Coalition predecessor have made fundamental changes in the way responsibility for apprenticeship provision is shared by the three ‘partners’, apprentices, business and government. For the first time, these changes, set out here, put employers at the heart of decisions about the standard-setting, assessment and delivery of apprenticeships

  • Occupational Skills Standards to be attained by the end of the apprenticeship period and known as ‘Trailblazers’ have been defined by groups of employers. These replace the previous awards drawn up by Sector Skills Councils
  • Successful completion of an apprenticeship will depend on success in end-point assessment conducted by Apprenticeship Assessment Organisations (AAOs). AAOs are independent of trainers/providers of apprenticeship training and will be selected by employers
  • Employers with an annual pay bill of more than £3,000,000 will pay a ‘levy’ or apprenticeship tax. In return, they will be able to draw on government funds through a digital account to pay for apprenticeship training (up to a given limit )
  • Responsibility for maintaining apprenticeship skills standards will pass to the employer-led Institute for Apprenticeship answerable to the Secretary of State and established by The Enterprise Act 2016

The work of the new Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) is key to the success of this ambitious and far-sighted programme of reform of apprenticeship governance in England. Employers in German-speaking countries, Austria, Germany and Switzerland have traditionally taken an active part with government and employee representatives for the setting, maintaining and upgrading of apprenticeship skills standards.

Until now employers in England have had little direct influence over the content and provision of apprenticeships compared to other apprenticeship countries. Now employers will be at the centre of decision-making on standards of apprenticeship training ensuring that skills acquired are relevant to market needs. Assessment will be de-coupled from provision and should become more reliable.

Because the levy will require larger employers to make a substantial contribution to the cost of apprenticeship provision, we can expect that they will want to ensure that apprenticeship quality improves. These outcomes should also serve the interests of apprentices who need a relevant and respected training reliably certified.

The public interest will be better served by these new arrangements by ensuring that public funds more effectively support the skills needed to raise productivity and enable young people to live more productive and fulfilling lives.

While the Enterprise Act outlines what the IfA is and what it should do, it falls far short of a vision for what could be achieved. A look at a similar organisation in Europe should help to launch a much-needed discussion. The German Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB) / with equal employer, employee , federal and regional government representation makes decisions about apprenticeship standard setting, upgrading of apprenticeships and the need (or not) for the recognition of new occupations.

An important function of this organisation is to ensure that these decisions are based on labour-market research. This research focuses on the impact of technology, organisational change and innovative training and assessment techniques and the implications for occupations and apprenticeship standards[1]. The work of the BIBB aims to ensure that training standards reflect innovations in production techniques and changing technology requirements. Training standards thereby carry innovation into a wide range of workplaces. This, in turn, forms an important contribution to the wider processes that keep German productivity at a consistently high level.

Until now, the development of the new Apprenticeship standards (Trailblazers) in England has been largely conducted on an ad hoc basis.

With the establishment of the IfA this can now change. Chief among its responsibilities will be the approval of new apprenticeship standards and the maintenance of quality.

If the IfA can respond to its brief from the Secretary of State with sufficient breadth of vision, apprenticeship standards in England can begin to disseminate innovation and give a much-needed boost to productivity.

[1] One recent example is research into training needs for industries associated with wind-power that showed that existing mechanical and electrical engineering training adequately met the industry’s needs and that new occupations were not needed. 

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