Home Opinion Apprenticeships: Striking The Balance Between Employers and Educationalists

Apprenticeships: Striking The Balance Between Employers and Educationalists

by Brian Sims
Peter Sherry

Peter Sherry

One of the key recommendations of the Richard Review of Apprenticeships (published in November 2012 during the 2010-2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government’s time in Parliamentary office) was that apprenticeship programmes should be employer-led, but what does this actually mean in the real world and why is it so important? Peter Sherry examines a key issue for the security business sector.

The Apprenticeship Levy funding scheme went ‘live’ on Monday 1 May and means that employers can draw down funds in order to pay for apprenticeship training. In order to qualify, though, employers have to agree to a number of rules, one of which states that they must provide ‘off-the-job’ training. This isn’t unusual, of course, but there remains some confusion in terms of how organisations will address this issue.

That same month, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) called upon the the Government to review its rules on apprenticeships’ ‘off-the-job’ training requirements. According to the Government’s guidance, employers must provide ‘off-the-job’ training that makes up “20% of the apprentice’s contracted employment hours across the apprenticeship”. This effectively means that trainees must be allowed training time – to the equivalent of one day per week – within their normal working hours.

Defending its position, the Government has stated that ‘off-the-job’ training doesn’t mean trainees have to receive instruction elsewhere (at a local college, for example), provided the training isn’t transacted as part of a trainee’s normal duties. For example, apprentices might spend time completing online training, attending role-play workshops or shadowing a colleague. Careful recording of such activity is necessary if employers are to evidence their ongoing commitment to the Apprenticeship Levy scheme.

In its research findings, the AELP suggests that, in reality, more than one third of ‘off-the-job’ training occurs at the trainee’s workstation, with only 13% taking place away from the workplace. As the 20% rule is currently non-negotiable, some commentators feel there’s a genuine risk that employers will treat it as a ‘tick-box’ requirement and the quality of training will subsequently decline.

Still employer-led?

Given the introduction of the 20% ‘off-the-job’ training rule, then, is it the case that apprenticeships are still employer-led?

Interestingly, the Education & Skills Funding Agency has published guidance on the 20% ‘off-the-job’ training rule for new apprenticeships. Aimed at employers and providers, it clarifies the policy and provides some Best Practice guidance in terms of how this requirement should be met.

Back in the day – and by that I mean in the Middle Ages through to the industrial era – the apprenticeship was pretty much always employer-led. To break into a decent trade meant the learner needed to sacrifice time. In essence, training was provided in exchange for effort. The learner studied under someone highly experienced (a ‘journeyman’) until he – it was typically a ‘he’ in those days, of course – became a ‘journeyman’ himself.

For clarity, the word ‘journeyman’ has nothing to do with being able to travel as a worker. It emanates from the French word ‘journée’, meaning a period of one day and suggesting that work could be charged at a day rate.

As the learner was working directly for the employer, the employer directly delivered the training. Indeed, there was often no curriculum. Individuals simply learned ‘on the job’. That being the case, the learning always supported the stated needs and aims of the employer.

In more recent times, there has been a move away from this model, with outside suppliers being the ones who create and lead the learning process. This isn’t without benefit. Hopefully, the learning is being led by people who are specialists. Teaching is a skill in itself. Nine-time Olympic swimming champion and former world record holder Mark Spitz’s trainer, Sherman Chavoor, couldn’t swim and didn’t need to be able to do so in order to be one of the greatest swimming coaches of all time.

Of course, the traditional apprenticeship did have its drawbacks. Learning wasn’t consistent. It differed from person to person. It took a lot longer to learn something than was often strictly necessary. The person teaching may have been a subject matter expert, but was unlikely to be an expert in teaching itself. The learner could end up being a ‘dogsbody’.

Transfer of ownership

As we witnessed a rise in formal education, so we saw a transfer of ownership of things like apprenticeships to local colleges and Government. This did bring positives. Principally, it created consistency and structure around learning. It also provided a good learning environment when not in the workplace itself, and duly allowed for the teaching of a wider range of supporting skills.

However, this approach also had its drawbacks. It’s difficult for an outside institution – no matter how skilled – to remain connected with the ever-changing needs of the employer. Alterations in the business could take at least one curriculum cycle to integrate into the training. Learning can become too theoretical and less focused on delivering benefits to the business.

Learning can also be too generic – ‘one-size-fits-all’ rather than training someone to be exactly what’s needed. The NHS could use apprenticeships to help ‘bridge’ the skills gap, but can an already overstretched public service commit to 20% ‘off-the-job’ training?

While offering greater ‘educational purity’, this was seen by many as being ‘two steps forward, one step back’.

What the Richard Review of Apprenticeships firmly recommended was placing the employer back into the centre of the process. There are several benefits to be gained from this. The most obvious is that, whichever way you look at it, the employer is the key stakeholder. If employers want apprentices who have a deeper understanding of the business, then they’re the ones best placed to make that happen.

This way of doing things also ensures that the curriculum is grounded in the reality of what the business needs (ie the stuff that matters). It also means simplifying what’s learned. There are fewer qualifications and everything’s focused on real world activities.

This isn’t to say that learning bodies should be cut out of the process. There’s a real job to be done to ensure that sectors operate within common skills frameworks. Otherwise, it’s very much the case that individuals cannot move from job to job with ease.

It’s also important that other skills are taken on board such that the individual isn’t just an automaton, but rather someone who can grow and develop a professional career. The entity in charge is the employer. Government should only be directing with a light touch.

Best of both worlds

This approach should deliver the best of both worlds, with the input of the employer and the educationalist more in balance to benefit both the employer and the learner. We’re seeing this happen in the security sector with the new Apprenticeship Standard for Fire, Emergency and Security Systems. This is driven directly by organisations within the sector working together with the backing of Government and the support of partners in education. By the very way in which this operates, it’s fully employer-led from the outset.

During the early years of a previous Conservative Government I really did welcome (then) Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech when he visited a Training Academy in Buckinghamshire. Perhaps more than ever before, the strength of the Government’s commitment to apprenticeships was abundantly in evidence. The Prime Minister outlined in some degree of detail that he wanted apprenticeships to be ‘the new norm’ and not just a valid alternative to studying for a degree, as well as being a route that could preface degree education.

The Prime Minister’s speech outlined the two critical aspects of apprenticeships and pre-employment training in which I’ve always believed. The first is the benefit to the country. As David Cameron stated at the time: “Britain’s in a global race. If we want to succeed in this global race, we have to invest in our Number One resource which is our people.”

That’s absolutely spot on. We simply have to have the best skills in every UK sector.

The second benefit is more personal and is that individuals benefit materially from learning. That’s equally spot on. Education is the key to unlocking not just one door, but potentially hundreds of them. Without training and skills, individuals can be marginalised and their options limited.

Peter Sherry is Interim Director General of Skills for Security

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