Apprenticeship changes: reflections thus far

I’ve drafted a few brief reflective pieces for the site of late – only for referendums, snippets of policy and other articles to make me pause and reflect again.  This is an attempt to capture some of the excellence points being made about apprenticeships as the future for UK (well English) skills development (as well as linking back to old articles on the topics).  I’m well aware that elements will be made out-of-date between typing and publication!

In summary, it is hard not to feel we are in the middle of a seismic shift, akin to the Blair years’ promise of 50% Higher Ed attendance and the earlier end of polytechnics.

Whilst partly being driven by (and carried along in the tsunami of) Brexit news – the potential implications and the importance of the changes to Apprenticeships are also being drowned out by the huge stories in Europe, Syria, America and elsewhere.  This is a shame as whilst the potential for new Grammar Schools has managed to grab headlines, the apprentice changes have struggled to.  This is particularly striking considering the levy policy largely amounts to Government intervention in workplace people development and, therefore, a potentially more important change.  This is especially so for a Conservative government that continues to talk of free trade opportunities whilst having changed minimum wages, pension laws and other cost of business regulations.

Reflections on the emergent policy

The Apprenticeship Levy and related policies (or at least information on them) have been delayed at virtually every stage.  This is not helped, as anyone who has tried to work through the process will find out, that the related pages have no real help, support contacts or feedback (beyond formal consultations).  I know it is better than it used to be, as they aim to move to the one site, but there are still plenty of errors on existing sites (see image from an example link on the Skills Funding Agency registration process).

Ultimately, there seems to be a shift from the government or individuals deciding ‘whose education is it anyway?’ to what business and employers determine is appropriate.  However this is within a government structure of shifting the financial cost to business in return.  Yet discussion continues over if some form of central linking of growth strategy and apprenticeships is needed, independent of the market forces of employer led levy policy.

Dead-links from the Skills Funding Agency website

Reflections on the impact on Higher Ed

As this opinion piece from the OU on and a previous post from me suggested, the levy offers L&D departments a huge opportunity.

The challenge may be more for universities.  With a clear challenge on how to keep relevant when charging huge fees.  To massively simplify – why would anyone want to study for 3 years for £40,000+ of debt when you could get an equivalent qualification whilst working?  Whilst the American Dream has been challenged as unattainable (as you can no longer work your way through college – but the universities and other interested parties dont want you to know that), apprenticeships are effectively challenging the ‘traditional’ UK model that started to take shape pre-Blair and was accelerated by his administrations.  Universities are going to have to become more responsive and imaginative in the design of degree-level apprenticeships.

If we accept there will be a (re)balance in the future between apprenticeships and degrees, then we also have to consider the nature of the labour market.  HE fees have discouraged mobility (encouraging people to stay and study at home) and social mobility in applications to ‘top end’ unis from lower income families.  Yet similar mobility challenges are being raised with apprenticeship changes.

Whilst a university education allows mobility, albeit I am an example of someone who chose a location for my undergraduate university (in part) as it was relatively close to home and cheap, there is the question of social value versus gaining efficiency through competition.  Of course, UK HE has some approaches that make entry to the market difficult (and better use of economies of scale, perhaps through mergers, could be made).  JISC could, for example, support degree apprenticeships through technology in a way that would be difficult for employer providers.

Fundamentally, there is also the question over why universities have failed to adopt wider competency models.  The US focus on competency based education in HE has shifted the model somewhat towards a more broken down skill profile assessment, akin in some ways to our apprenticeships.  Inevitably UK HE will have to move away from the vagueness of 1st, 2nd and 3rd class degrees.  Of course a lot of this is not new, I even presented on related issues at a conference in 2010.  There were also sessions on competency based learning beyond the standard curriculum at the same conference.  You have to presume that changes to traditional degree models will be accelerated by the ‘competition’ with new apprenticeships.

And to the future…

The arguments over graduate skills (or lack there of) will continue.  The shift to the Levy means employers paying to the levy have three real options it seems to me:

  1. do nothing – accept the loss as a tax
  2. work with vendors – accept apprenticeships as your career development pathways but also accept the “loss” of the levy money
  3. employer provider route – try and claim back the money whilst doing apprenticeship programmes yourself.  Comes with the highest risk (including dealing with Ofsted) but potentially highest rewards.  Risk is also associated with continuing lack of clarity, not least over assessment standards.

Another area where questions remain is if the target of three million apprenticeships will bring down quality.

Option 3: Employer providers

A key feature to the planned changes with the apprenticeship policy, throughout the planning, has been the promise of a shift to them becoming (more) ’employer led’.  There will be less of an education-sector focus in their organisation, especially in the change to allow people to be an apprentice at a lower or equal level to past qualifications (a big change).

The summer’s raft of announcements, typically made when I was on holiday, seemed to suggest (yet further) that becoming an ’employer-provider’ is a Good Thing for employers.  Questions remain though and I was personally turned down for the pilot of the apprenticeship funding website – again you could probably argue that giving some companies the early access and others not is, again, interventionist and potentially a help to some companies over others in competitive environments.  Yet confidence with the levy seems to only be possible if you think the current government will be in power for a while at least, opposition being in place from across the benches of the commons albeit sometimes ignoring the levy altogether.  Yet the government has continued to tinker with the planned new structures in the face of some of this opposition.

The presumption seems to be that larger employers, who already have L&D resources, can consider the provider route.  This makes sense, not least as apprenticeships focus on learning across the 70/20/10 spectrum.  However, the enforcement of L&D teams working within rules they might not have worked on themselves (depending on if they worked on the standard or not) will be a challenge to many – not least when there has been such a focus on informal elements and recognising the value of learning achieved away from credentialing (this also being part of the challenge for HE). There have also been lots of questions over supporting smaller companies in supply chains (aka ‘extended enterprise’) and the need to apply as a full provider to train other companies’ staff may be too much of a logistical burden for many organisations.  However, again, there is potential here for L&D departments to really transform their position within their organisations and their relation to partner companies.

Indeed the options for what levy money can be used for, by employer providers, are quite comprehensive:

“Employer-providers will be able to use funds in their digital account to pay for the following: • training to achieve the apprenticeship, which could include qualifications, elearning (as part of a broader training package), vendor qualifications • registration, assessment, materials and examination • administration related to the delivery of the apprenticeships. • accommodation for residential trips if necessary for all apprentices to achieve • costs for use of premises where these are used for the apprenticeship • wages and associated costs (such as pension and National Insurance contributions) for employees directly involved in the delivery of the apprenticeship.”

and it is difficult to see quite how the government will regulate and audit against ‘misuse’, even if their attempts are mostly logical:

“To claim eligible costs, employer-providers are required to input the price of these costs on the digital apprenticeship service and through the Individualised Learner Record. As detailed below, employers must retain evidence of these costs. This evidence may be requested as part of the SFA’s audit and assurance checks.

They won’t be able to use it for: • costs that are the employer’s responsibility, for example health and safety requirements, wages, travel, commercial choices (e.g. CSCS cards) • wages for line managers or other colleagues supporting the apprentice 16 • wages of the apprentice • profit or employee bonuses • capital purchases • more than one apprenticeship at a time for an individual apprentice • re-taking qualifications or assessment where no additional learning takes place • apprentice recruitment • anything that has received other government funding (for example European Social Fund)”.

The 20% rule

Historically the opposition to apprenticeships has often focused on the 20% rule:

“All apprenticeships must include 20% off the job training. It is up to you to decide at what point during the apprenticeship the training is best delivered (for example, one day a week throughout, 1 week out of every 5, a proportion at the beginning, middle and end). This will depend on what is best for your organisation and the apprentice. You need to ensure that all apprentices receive all of the training.”

To myself, as an L&D person, this sounds awful and in opposition to the wider potential of workplace learning and on-the-job ‘training’.  Indeed I chose to focus on this point when commenting on the Learning and Skills Group Forum a while back.  The noise seems to be that this can be more flexible than it has perhaps been in the past.


Overall, there remain many grey areas over how the FY17 model will work but the support being given to apprenticeships does seem to be hugely important and something for all L&D departments to consider in their strategies – even if to say the ‘brand’ of apprenticeships (one of the outstanding issues according to the CIPD) still isn’t strong enough to work for them.  Many useful links still haven’t made it into this reflective piece so I may well add to the comments.

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader ( and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

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