Getting apprenticeships right

31 January 2019 | By Pip Brooking

With the CBI setting out the next steps for apprenticeship reform, we speak to businesses about their experiences of the current system

Apprenticeships are a great route to the high-skilled, high-paid jobs that fit firms’ needs now and in the future. But since the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017, progress towards this goal has stuttered. To its credit, the government is listening to businesses’ calls for continued reform. So what happens next?

In the first of a series of apprenticeship reports this year, the CBI has focused on the infrastructure that should be helping to deliver better quality technical qualifications and better supporting firms to offer new routes into, and progression in, the workplace.

Its main message is that the government must give the Institute of Apprenticeships (IfA) the independence and clout it needs to reform and regulate the English skills system – with the power to set it owns success criteria for technical education and report back to ministers.

The IfA was set up in early 2017 to give businesses more of a voice in skills provision and design. It took on oversight for new apprenticeship standards (originally introduced in 2014) and has reviewed funding for them. But both elements have proved challenging for firms.

“All too often and to the frustration of many firms, the tension between the IfA’s role as an arms-length government body, as well as being independent and employer-led, has been clear,” says John Cope, CBI Head of Education and Skills policy.

Raising standards

Businesses have welcomed the move away from prescriptive frameworks for apprenticeships. By working together in sector-specific trailblazer groups, they now have the opportunity to shape qualifications that deliver better results for them, the industries they operate in and, importantly, the individuals looking to build a career in those industries.

“It might take more time and it’s difficult to bring everyone together, but it delivers better results and skills for everyone,” says Mark Stewart, Head of HR at Airbus UK, and Chair of the Aerospace Growth Partnership’s Skills Working Group.

Over the past five years, working with other businesses such as GKN and BAE Systems, Airbus has introduced a raft of new apprenticeship standards, including engineering degree apprenticeships, craft apprenticeships and, more recently, finance, HR and digital apprenticeships. It’s also introducing one for procurement and supply chain management in September. The company has also recognised the opportunity for using apprenticeships to upskill staff – moving them from the shop floor into design, for example.  

And Stewart adds the process is getting easier under the IfA.

But in the 2018 CBI/Pearson Education & Skills Survey 11 percent of respondents cited the slow pace of standards approval as their biggest challenge in the Apprenticeship Levy’s first year. And at its worst, Katie Nightingale, Group Early Careers Manager at Kier Group, points to delays in finalising construction standards of more than four years.

“There were sticking points between the IfA and the employer chair. We’re hoping to move forward on them in the next three months – they’re really wanted by the industry and they’re really quite significant to us in being able to deliver some of our key programmes,” she explains.

There’s also a financial implication to the delay, she adds: “We’ve got 39 apprenticeship starts lined up for February and, as it stands, I don’t think they can all be funded through the Levy. And we thought we were going to be able to convert it last year.”

It’s for situations such as this that the CBI has recommended the government set up a new appeals system, giving employers longer to spend their levy funds (set to expire from April 2019) when standards remain in development.

But Nightingale also points to wider funding issues within the current system, particularly following the IfA’s funding review – on another standard that took two years to develop, for example, she says the maximum funding band is now too low to deliver it.

Other firms involved in trailblazer groups talk of mixed messages about assessment and misunderstandings around industry needs, which are adding barriers to progress.

Broader support

Many businesses are passionate about their ability to get involved – and the benefits that can be achieved through the new system. But Stewart and Nightingale also agree that it’s requires a lot of hard work – and that makes it hard for smaller businesses to join them, and ultimately get the standards that work for them.

Kier’s Nightingale says she’s had a positive experience of working with IfA’s relationship managers – but communication between the parties involved could be better, and more structure could be provided around the trailblazers to help organise them, support them and keep them on track.

And the CBI’s report echoes these thoughts, arguing that the IfA needs to raise its profile with employers, ensure that it is properly accessible, and that it provides consistent support.

It also goes one step further. Now the IfA is set to take on responsibility for T-levels and higher T-levels, there’s all the more reason for it to work better with the employers keen to deliver a seamless technical route for young people to progress into their chosen careers.

“The IfA needs to set out a clear vision for its role in the skills system, giving employers and the public greater confidence in these reforms,” says the CBI’s Cope. “And this business-backed blueprint needs to be taken seriously if we’re going to make sure that the IfA offers employers the support they need.”

For more detail on the CBI's recommendations, read the Getting Apprenticeships Right: Next Steps report


Join the discussion