In a piece written for the FE Week Annual Apprenticeship Conference, Charlotte Bosworth, OCR’s Director of Skills and Employment, considers both the importance of careers guidance and employer engagement in apprenticeship reform.
The key themes of this year’s Annual Apprenticeship conference were focused on getting the detail of what the reality of apprenticeship reform is going to look like on the ground. As a sector, we have lots more questions, particularly about the levy, than there are answers available. It is getting to that critical moment where clarity is needed or there is a risk that the reputation and availability of apprenticeship places could be at risk.
During Day 1 of the conference, a question was asked from an employer – it was a good question – they asked when information about the levy would be confirmed. As we’re putting employers in the driving seat, we need to recognise that they need to plan their businesses and last-minute policy decisions prevent that from happening. The difficulty there, of course, is that if employers do not have the information they need they could delay or restrict the volume of apprenticeship places they can or will offer. This would not only affect the 3 million apprenticeships target, but could also negatively affect the apprenticeship brand and that could take a very long time to recover.
It was interesting to observe the debate on Twitter following the update from BIS where the Department focused on its assertion that the new apprenticeships frameworks have been user led. By user, BIS was referring to employers. A number of employers disagreed with this point, including large ones, and were more concerned about the groups that had not been engaged including SMEs, assessment organisations and most importantly young people.
With young people in mind for 2 of our conference workshops, we invited panellists to discuss 2 issues that for us are critical to the success of the apprenticeship programme – careers guidance and how to engage employers of all sizes in apprenticeship reform.
We hear frequent criticism of the state of careers, information advice and guidance, yet we seem to be no closer to resolving it. Our workshop heard about the need for careers provision to provide information and to inspire people to look at avenues they might not otherwise have considered. We heard directly from Youth Ambassadors about their previous expectations that the careers counsellor would come and tell them what career pathway they should take. This is a perception we can only challenge by demonstrating what good careers information looks like and how it can help people make informed choices.
The Demos Commission on Apprenticeships cited statistics that showed while 92% of parents think apprenticeships are a good option for young people, only 32% think that an apprenticeship would be the best option for their son or daughter. These statistics are damaging to apprenticeships and particularly to those growth targets, so we must challenge them.
We also heard from employers of all sizes, representing the private and voluntary sectors too. We heard widespread support for apprenticeships and support for the role of employers but we also heard different views about whether the existing apprenticeship system worked for their business or not. This is not as clear-cut as the reform programme would suggest. From one large employer, there was a view that their existing framework worked well for their business and they could not see the rationale for wholesale change. They also challenged the rhetoric of employer-led when they felt they had not been consulted and their voices were not heard. But we also heard from a sector where some changes was needed as the framework system was not fit for its purpose and for them the standards were an important development.
For careers guidance and employer engagement, it is clear that not every voice is the same, and therefore, the apprenticeship system needs to be flexible enough to deal with these different requirements.
Reforms to the apprenticeship system are not going to end quickly. We must ensure that we are not ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’ and losing those vital aspects of the system that work well and are valued. The funding system, particularly with the introduction of the levy, needs to support all employers that want to deliver apprenticeships; it cannot just focus on those voices that support the government’s planned direction. If the relevant organisations across the sector are meaningfully engaged to use their expertise then we can deliver high quality and increasing numbers.