Are we there yet? The growing pains of national apprenticeship reform in the UK

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The UK apprenticeship reform programme

When in 2013, following an independent review of the apprenticeship system carried out by Doug Richard, the UK Government committed to reform and expand the provision of apprenticeship programmes, two goals were identified at the heart of this process: to improve productivity in the UK, and to promote social mobility. Both of these are vitally important, and relevant in any modern economy.

Now a few years later, with new apprenticeship programmes becoming more established, and thousands of apprentices graduating every year,  it is the right time to reflect on the progress we have made so far here in the UK to meet these ambitious aims.

The long-term game plan

Similarly to many other countries, the UK has recognized the importance of vocational learning, and apprenticeship programmes in particular, in addressing the very evident skills gap in its economy. The Government, in line with Richard’s recommendations, has implemented a set of comprehensive reform actions, the most notable including the introduction of a new funding mechanism, i.e. the employer levy, the launching of new apprenticeship standards developed in cooperation with employers, and the establishment of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. In 2015, degree and degree level apprenticeships were also launched in England to offer a viable alternative to mainstream higher education. These, in particular, have been designed to support the Government’s efforts to promote social mobility and in a sustainable way widen access to higher education for underrepresented groups.

An ugly duckling with a reputational issue?

It was never going to be easy for apprenticeships to compete with mainstream education, especially with the top academic institutions in the country. Traditionally associated with vocational learning, apprenticeships are still struggling to shake off the reputation of ‘trade’ qualifications.

However, if we take a closer look, the new apprenticeship standards, and degree level apprenticeship programmes have nothing to be ashamed of. Whilst they do not always have Russell Group university names and traditions behind them, they use seasoned industry experts, often with strong academic qualifications, delivering teaching and coaching initiatives, with the support and input from employers and recognised learning providers.

Now, more than ever, in these pandemic-shaken, post-Brexit, uncertain times, apprenticeships seem like a perfect way for employers

Fitch Learning has been awarded the top Ofsted visit grade and has developed its provision since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in May 2017 to not just give guidance to the learners, but equally as important to the Employers. This guidance covers a number of areas, such as role suitability, learner eligibility, Ofsted and ESFA requirements. Over the past few years, we’ve seen that developing successful apprenticeship schemes for the financial services sector is not always a quick-win. The ongoing input of experienced coaches, employers and learning providers is often required, who know exactly what the apprentices need to learn and which skills to develop in order for them to  thrive in their roles. This is particularly relevant given the current pace of change due to economic uncertainty, market volatility and regulatory changes in the industry as a result of the global pandemic.

The programmes in place also offer a variety of soft skills training, as well as technical and industry qualifications, combined with tailor-made coaching and mentoring sessions with industry specialists. Such programmes are typically offered in a rather limited form, if in any, by traditional academic institutions, even the most prestigious ones. As noted by Carl Cullinane and Katherine Doherty in their report ‘Degree Apprenticeships: Levelling up? Making degree apprenticeships work for social mobility’, the higher-level apprenticeship programmes allow the learners to achieve labour market outcomes comparable with university degrees obtained from Russell Group universities, but without paying tuition fees. In addition, apprenticeship qualifications are now offered in some of the most prestigious and lucrative professions such as banking, law, accounting, engineering, or IT.

The fact that many leading companies across various industries, including the financial services sector, have now successfully implemented and are using apprenticeship schemes to upskill their employees has definitely had a positive impact on the perception of apprenticeships, legitimising them as a relevant and valid alternative to the mainstream education. But the work on raising their profile, and, more importantly, promoting a better understanding of the benefits they offer, needs to continue to ensure that we achieve a sustainable and truly effective apprenticeship model.  In addition, the responsibility to educate the public is not only on the Government but also relies on other stakeholders who have already experienced and benefited from apprenticeship programmes first-hand to champion the merits and benefits of taking part in them.

Not perfect, but getting there

As noted by Malgorzata Kuczera and Simon Field in their 2018 OECD report ‘Apprenticeships in England, United Kingdom’, it is not a perfect picture just yet, but the UK seems to be on the right track to have a well-operating apprenticeship system in the coming years. The key areas of weakness requiring further attention identified by them included the strengthening of provision of apprenticeships for the youngest learners, i.e. 16-19 years old (also echoed by many other researchers), re-engaging employers in the provision of on-the-job learning, which, as correctly observed by them, has been neglected due to a strong focus on the off-the-job learning element of the programmes, and continuous improvement of the quality of assessment and apprenticeship delivery.

All of the above, is in fact confirmed by employers, training providers and apprentices alike. The consensus is that apprenticeship programmes require further refinement, with employers and learners stressing, for example, the need to reduce administrative elements of the programmes. However, all stakeholders, generally, seem to have a positive view of apprenticeships and recognise the vast benefits they offer.  The obvious point to make here is that it takes time to perfect a system as complex as this one, which strives to address multiple needs and outcomes all at once. It has only been five years since the launch of degree and degree level apprenticeships and, considering the scale of the introduced reforms, it will take a while longer for all the parties involved to work out the perfect formula.

Strengthening social mobility

One of the goals that the Government has been keen to accomplish through the reform of the apprenticeship system is to improve social mobility and social inclusivity by making higher level education more accessible to a wider range of learners, especially those from less privileged and underrepresented backgrounds.

The data presented in a number of recent research studies in this area, and in particular reports analysing social mobility in degree apprenticeships, is showing that we ‘are not there yet’. But the results are not completely disappointing either. The research clearly shows that more initiatives are needed that would encourage and enable young people, particularly from underrepresented groups, to take advantage of higher education opportunities offered through apprenticeships. According to Cullinane and Doherty’s report, more than a half of the degree level apprentices are over 25 years old. More needs to be done to promote apprenticeships among 16-19 years old learners so they can make informed choices about their educational and career options. In order to make the apprenticeships a truly effective tool in reducing social inequality and promoting social mobility, we need to make them available to people who otherwise would not be able to access higher education. Right now, it looks like the efforts are focused on achieving just that – the Government, for example, has recently completed a review of the Level 7 Senior Leader Standard, and will reduce the funding available for this apprenticeship in favour of programmes which may give learning opportunities to younger learners with limited experience and education.

Nonetheless, there are already many successful examples of social inclusion and social mobility happening thanks to the apprenticeship system, and this should serve as an encouragement and inspiration for all parties involved in improving the system.

Next chapter

In the White Paper published in January 2021 by the Department of Education, the Secretary of State for Education underlined the importance of further and technical education, and the crucial role of employers in reducing the existing skills gap in the UK, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Apprenticeships, of course, are not the only answer to how these ambitious plans can be accomplished, but they are definitely one of them. Now, more than ever, in these pandemic-shaken, post-Brexit, uncertain times, apprenticeships seem like a perfect way for employers, including companies in the financial services sector, to upskill their current and future workforce, while playing an active part in the process. The economy needs a certain set of skills here and now, and apprenticeship programmes offer targeted development of skills and knowledge that can be delivered much faster than any mainstream academic education can. In addition, apprenticeships allow apprentices to obtain their qualifications, while being in full-time employment, therefore reducing the alarmingly increasing unemployment level and further supporting economic recovery. This seems like a win-win on all fronts!

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Investment Banking Skills Coach, Fitch Learning.

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