This is a follow up to the blog published a fortnight ago entitled: ‘What should apprenticeship providers be doing to make the apprenticeship levy a success?’. The alarming dip in apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the new funding mechanism has been a hot topic in the media over the last 2 weeks.
Stories have appeared in The Financial Times, The Guardian, FE Week, FE News and the BBC online; so unusually Further Education has hit the national press. Unfortunately, once again, for negative reasons rather than positive ones.
As I discussed in my previous blog, it is all too easy to be shackled by negativity in the sector and get frustrated with Government policy. Let us turn this around and have some positive news… in the spirt of effective teaching and learning; let’s assess what has gone well and what we have learned so far.
Does anyone remember the UK Commission for Employment and Skills? In my opinion, one of the few government quangos at the time that delivered some real value. In 2013 they published the document ‘Employer ownership of skills: building the momentum’ which drew conclusions on the piloted employer investment programmes, where employers and colleges worked together to develop the skills employers need for their future workforce. In essence, this was where the migration to standards and employer-led funding, in other words; the regime we have now, began. The report generated 4 key recommendations:
· Incentivise opportunities for young people (give employers control of the funding)
· Move from grants and qualifications to sustainable investment in outcomes (create sustainable jobs outcomes)
· Continue to create the conditions for greater employer ownership (moving from Awarding Body frameworks to Employer designed standards)
· Unlock the potential of employer and college collaboration (work experience, T levels and seeking private investment in colleges).
Fast forward by 4 years to 2017 and we can see that great strides have been made here by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) in achieving these aims and the UKCES report gave a distinct steer to where government policy was heading. This is all pretty obvious for those that read the report findings and was prepared to see the writing on the wall for Further Education (FE) direct funding and Awarding Body control of the skills agenda. This Conservative-led government has been pretty consistent on skills since 2011 so there were no alarms and no surprises when standards and the levy mechanism were finally implemented.
Unfortunately for FE providers, the wider political landscape over the last few years has been one coloured by instability and uncertainty. We had a general election in May 2015, a referendum on EU membership in June 2016 and then a snap general election in June 2017 and all that served to undermine certainty in skills policy. Further education is uniquely affected by the whims of the political landscape and for the last three Summers providers felt it prudent to be cautious before adopting new schemes and avoid planning too far in advance - committing to something that may not happen.
At any stage there was the distinct possibility that the employer-led reforms suggested by UKCES could be abandoned entirely if there was a change of Government, or when and if Brexit happened. FE Colleges and Independent providers simply did not have the cash reserves or the staff resource to strategically plan for wholesale reforms that may or may not occur. They were at the mercy of the powers that be.
Unfortunately for the FE sector, the Higher Education and University sector have both the cash and the business development staff to explore and research opportunities that could result in a financial cul de sac. Further Education as a sector does not have this luxury, one wrong move and resources are far too stretched to keep the ship afloat.
So, what can we learn about recent trends and the concerning stories about the lack of apprenticeship starts?
We need to be mindful that this is an employer led system now (even though many of them allegedly do not understand what the levy is, or how to use their share of it at present). Employers will do what they want with their levy pots (or co-investment cash) when they want to. They are in no rush to waste their money, and they work to a strategic Learning and Development plan in most cases.
This money is quite obviously a far better investment in their existing staff who they can bring through for succession planning purposes. Why? Because promoting someone from within is cheaper in terms of salary, saves recruitment costs in a tight employment market (don’t forget we are experiencing a record rate of employment in the UK) and results in far greater rates of key employee retention.
With this in mind, in a climate of falling apprenticeship starts overall there have been areas that have bucked the trend. Where has this resilient demand for apprenticeships been and which standards are really grabbing the attention of employers? The Apprenticeships that employers really want: Management and Leadership training programmes at higher levels.
Management and Leadership is where employers can get the most ‘bang for their buck’ from their levy spend, and employees are likely to be most engaged when choosing to undergo a training programme. What is important to remember is that this is an active choice made by employees.
People are at work for long hours, live busy lives, have family commitments and are under a lot of pressure to hold everything together. It is a massive decision to choose to undertake a training programme for over 12 months of your life. It takes a significant level of commitment and has a huge impact on your daily life. Employees have to really want to undertake the training, with support from their employer through the levy pot, but potentially being liable for the cost of training if they learn and leave.
This is a common caveat of undertaking external learning whilst employed so can we be entirely sure that this is not happening behind the scenes with some employers? If that is the case it is a massive financial investment from employees too; as big a commitment as taking on a student loan. Would you make such a commitment both with your time (and possibly with your finances) to a training programme without a demonstrable return on investment?
This is where a Higher-Level Management Certificate, Degree or a Master’s in Business Administration is an entirely different story and becomes something of a game changer for apprenticeship delivery. According to FE Week the Department for Education (DfE) are watching this development closely.
Make no mistake the DfE will be ‘watching it closely’, but no doubt with a sense of satisfaction at a victory amongst all of the criticism levelled against it in the last 12 months. This is working in the way it was intended to work.
Management and Leadership programmes provide precisely the skills that the UK economy needs to develop its existing workforce and ensure that opportunities for growth are exploited. This is where the skills policy was heading and here we come full circle back to the excellent service that UKCES once provided for the skills sector in terms of LMI and curriculum planning. I cannot remember a UKCES survey being published that did not highlight the lack of Management and Leadership skills and the necessity of these in the future to ensure that the UK economy continued to grow.
This drive towards higher level skills is echoed by the excellent new report ‘The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030’ commissioned by Pearson in partnership with NESTA and The Oxford Martin School available here.
This report expands upon the work of the UKCES to tackle the fashionable issue of automation and the effect this will have on the future workforce. Unsurprisingly, the jobs named as likely to be in decline by 2030 are those that are low or medium skilled that we could equate to Level 2 and Level 3 apprenticeships training programmes.
Conversely, where the report sees stronger demand is in higher level cognitive, interpersonal and systems skills. These are precisely the learning outcomes offered by an MBA and other higher-level Management programmes but also through specialist technical training.
This is the future; this is where UK skills policy has been heading since 2013, and this is precisely the area that the Further Education sector has to move towards. Not just in order to run a future proofed organisation but also to ensure that your learners are truly being trained for the workforce of the future. Fundamentally, this is what Further Education is all about is it not?
So, in conclusion, there are a number of elements to draw together here and I believe some valuable insights to embed into both an apprenticeship strategy and also wider curriculum development.
Further education providers must take the time out to future-proof their operating model, just as Universities are able to do. This is why Universities have in some respects stolen a march in employer engagement and levy funds associated with those employers. It seems as though Universities were simply able to ‘weather the storm’ around fluctuating political developments and take the long view that the Government would always develop the skills strategy that it wanted.
The Government has achieved this with the apprenticeship funding mechanism and furthermore, with the advent of T levels. The gauntlet has been thrown down to challenge both FE Colleges and Independent Training Providers (ITPs) as to how meaningful and valuable the qualifications that they deliver actually are to their learners. This is crucial, whether they are employed learners or young people on the pathway to sustainable and fulfilling employment opportunities in the future.
Each commitment to undergo a training programme is a buying decision, and that decision for employers and employees is always made for value reasons. Will your offer enable the learner to be successful?
That is the key question that the Department for Education, the Employment and Skills Funding Agency, Ofsted and the Institute for Apprenticeships are repeatedly asking providers. It would be remiss of the sector to fail to provide an answer.
This is not scaremongering. This is practical advice – FE providers need to wake up and as a sector, we all need to revise the way we think so we are not left behind and can once again thrive.