Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)


8 OCTOBER 2008

  Q1  Chairman: I welcome our three witnesses to our deliberations. We are conducting part of a pre-legislative inquiry into the draft Apprenticeships Bill. As everyone knows, this is part of a pre-legislative inquiry across the two Departments. The majority of it, in territory terms, is a Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills responsibility, so I suspect that the lead role has been with DIUS, but we are certainly taking our part seriously, particularly in the areas of 16-to-18 apprenticeships and their career implications. That is what this sitting is about. Simon, what was your reaction when you heard about the Bill? We have had apprenticeships in this country for a long time. They chunter along pretty well, and have increased substantially over the past nine or 10 years. Why do we need the Bill?

  Simon Bartley: Thank you very much. My first impression when I heard about the Bill was a positive one. I felt that it was more evidence that apprenticeships and vocational education were at the top of the agenda, or rising to the top of the agenda. So I welcomed it, and carried on welcoming it thereafter. You are right: it is rather nice that somebody has given some credit that apprenticeships have been around for 400 years, and if I put my sector skills council hat on, covering plumbing, I think that they go back to Roman times, if not before. So it is rather nice to hear that apprenticeships have a long life and are worthwhile continuing. The problem that we have had with apprenticeships in the areas that I have been involved in has been the reluctance of employers to place all their apprentice eggs in the one basket of 16-year-old school leavers. We have been working on persuading the Government to have adult apprentices, so I saw this as a move in the right direction, towards widening the franchise of apprenticeships, so that employers in particular could get more of what they wanted, from different places, rather than from where they were being told was the only place to get it.

  Q2  Chairman: Andy Powell, is there anything that you would like to say to the Committee?

  Andy Powell: Briefly, I have a strong belief that apprenticeships and that form of learning and development for young people are a good thing. The aspiration that we should, over the next 10 years, build that up to 20% of young people doing them seems absolutely sensible. Therefore, a Bill that strengthens that is, I think, not a bad thing. The challenge of the Bill for me is that the key things lie around it. So the advice and guidance given to young people are important, but so are what leads up to an apprenticeship and where people go on from being an apprentice. In those sort of areas, I have some suggestions of where the Bill is more difficult to support, but I am in support of the concept.

  Q3  Chairman: What is the view from your vantage point in the FE sector, Nick?

  Nick Edwards: We welcomed the Bill coming forward. We understood that there was a commitment from the Government towards apprenticeships, but the Bill begins to give some actual leverage to delivering those apprenticeships. It will give some momentum. It also assigns responsibilities, which I think is very important to deliver the targets that the Government want.

  Q4  Chairman: How many apprenticeships are there at the moment, Simon?

  Simon Bartley: One hundred and eighty thousand a year, I think.

  Q5  Chairman: That is a substantial increase, is it not?

  Simon Bartley: It is a substantial increase, over the last three or four years, from 60,000 or 70,000. The actual figures are at the beginning of the Bill, I think, in the foreword: 180,000 in 2006-07, up from 65,000 in 1996—so an increase over 10 years. I think that the important thing in the foreword is the number of completions. There is a real issue about the non-completion of apprenticeships. In some sectors—such as plumbing, or electrical contracting or wiring—partially qualified individuals entering the labour market, who may be two years through a three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship, are actually a risk to themselves and to the customers they are working for. Also, by their very dropping out of apprenticeships and not completing, they make employers less likely to want to take on another apprentice. If you are a small employer and you take on one apprentice a year, and one in two of them does not finish, eventually you are going to think, "Why do I put all my effort into this training?" The important thing is the completion figure—up from 40,000 to 112,000, broadly in proportion with what happens elsewhere. The Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network worked on some of the earlier figures and the earlier papers and Bills that have gone through Parliament, and with the target of 400,000 that came out in Leitch for England—500,000, I think, for the whole of the United Kingdom—which is, or was until very recently, a realistic target for apprenticeships and something to be welcomed. The work in this Bill of having older individuals—16, 17, 18, perhaps 19-year-olds—starting apprenticeships with a guarantee helps achieve that target, which I think is a good one.

  Q6  Chairman: I do not know whether a lot of people have a memory of what an apprenticeship looked like. What does the apprenticeship look like today? Bring the Committee up to date. How long is an apprenticeship, for example?

  Simon Bartley: That is a long question, which could take the whole of our time. Briefly, there are apprenticeships to Level 2 and to Level 3, so the difference in timing for each of those is considerable. In different sectors, of course, they tend to be different, depending on the framework. I can build on the ones in electrical contracting, which I know. In the production of an electrician, there is no Level 2 apprenticeship, because there is no job there for someone in the electrical industry. The electrical industry wants fully qualified electricians, and they come with a Level 3 qualification. So there is not a Level 2; people pass through where a Level 2 would have been at 12 months.

  Q7  Chairman: How long is the overall apprenticeship in that sector?

  Simon Bartley: About three and a half years. It is not dependent on time—so the idea of a time-served apprenticeship, which is the historical type of apprenticeship, has gone. An apprenticeship is gained by gaining a technical certificate at Level 3, followed by the NVQ at Level 3. It is the NVQ—the time spent at the workplace doing it—that takes the bulk of the three and a half years. At the end of that, there is an achievement measurement test, which is a practical test to ensure that the time spent on site is not just time served but has achieved the occupational standard required for the craft of being an electrician. That is pretty standard across most craft apprenticeships.

  Q8  Chairman: Yes, but you are talking about craft apprenticeships—the model that most of us are familiar with. Andy Powell, how does that compare with apprenticeships in other areas like retail or distribution or leisure and tourism?

  Andy Powell: The only thing that I can say in response, though I cannot give the detail, is that they can be very different. The length of time that apprentices serve can depend on the individual, as Simon says, but also, on average, it can vary quite significantly between, for example, engineering on one end, which takes more like four years, and some of the others, such as customer service or retail, which can be quite short.

  Q9  Chairman: How short?

  Andy Powell: I would have to check this, but I would have thought around a year in some cases. Most Level 2 apprentices take about 12 to 18 months, but it is nearer 12 months or even shorter in some cases. Level 3 apprentices take between a year and a half and two and a half years on average.

  Nick Edwards: We would expect to get retail, business administration and IT apprentices at Level 2 through in 12 months if they have the appropriate work experience and can evidence the competencies in the workplace. That is what our funding is based on as well. There is the concept of timely completions. The LSC has a view of how long an apprenticeship should take. Level 3 would take two to three years, but we would be looking to try to get them through in two years if they have already done Level 2.

  Q10  Chairman: Why, when I inquired what was the average length of an apprenticeship, was I told it was one year? There must be some pretty short apprenticeships if the average is one year.

  Nick Edwards: It depends where the starting point is for the learner. For a Level 2, it would be one year. That is what we are funded for. For Level 3, it depends on experience—what level the person is coming in and what knowledge they have of the industry. Remember that people in employment can undertake apprenticeships, as well as people new to the industry. Some people at Level 3 would already have substantial experience in the workplace and would then take a Level 3 apprenticeship that would fast track them through quite quickly, because they can evidence the competencies in the workplace.

  Q11  Chairman: I want to press you a little bit more on these very short apprenticeships, especially the shortest—hairdressing or child care. Are there apprenticeships in hairdressing?

  Nick Edwards: There are apprenticeships in hairdressing, yes.

  Q12  Chairman: How many?

  Nick Edwards: I am not aware of how many there are.

  Q13  Chairman: Does anybody know? Can you give us any idea of what the numbers are? Are the bulk of our craft apprenticeships at the moment taking three or three and half years, or are the bulk very short?

  Simon Bartley: I am drawing on memory here and I might, when the transcript arrives, suggest an accurate change, but I would think that three quarters of apprenticeships are at Level 2 and that no more than a quarter of apprenticeships are at Level 3—in other words, advanced apprenticeships. A lot depends on the requirements of the occupational standard that is going to be met by the apprenticeship, and of course, those occupational standards are slightly dependent on what the employers in a particular industry want the apprentice to have learned. There is meant to be some parity between the occupational standard in hairdressing at Level 3 and the occupational standard of an electrician or plumber at Level 3. It is very difficult to compare exactly. You would need to talk to a QCA or an LSC expert on those. But I would be surprised if an advanced apprenticeship in plumbing—other than through the accreditation of prior learning that Nick has just mentioned—or an advanced apprenticeship in hairdressing took significantly different lengths of time. It might be two and half to three and half years or two and half to five years, but I cannot believe that the average length of a Level 3 apprenticeship or a Level 2 apprenticeship combined number would be 12 months, because that would mean that some were being pushed through in two or three months, and there is not that number of candidates with accreditation of prior learning work experience to justify that. The Apprenticeship Ambassadors Network can probably give you more accurate figures more rapidly than I can.

  Nick Edwards: When people enter the workplace, it is often through a more informal apprenticeship. You often get someone, say from hairdressing, who will say that they have left school and they have been taken on as an apprentice. They are not a part of the formal apprenticeship scheme. They are on low pay, doing low-skilled jobs in a hairdressing salon, gradually picking up skills. Then they will apply to a college or training provider to do a formal apprenticeship. They have already learnt a considerable amount of skills in the workplace. Those people will achieve quicker. You will then get other people who will leave school and go straight on to an apprenticeship—like a hairdressing apprenticeship. They then have to do all the underpinning knowledge, because they do not have the knowledge of the industry and so on, and they will take longer. That is one of the beauties of the apprenticeship scheme—it is customised to the individual's learning needs and to their experience of the workplace.

  Andy Powell: Having said that, if we try to hover up a bit from this and say, "How do we increase the quantity and quality of apprenticeships?", the overall brand and quality is very important. That is one thing. The two other things are, depending on which way you look at it, demand and supply—demand by employers for young people and the supply of good young people coming in. The point that you raise, Chairman, is important. But overall, the increase in the completion rate is very significant and commendable, and that quality has made a big difference. If you look at the statistics—I do not have the details in front of me—and at the length of that apprenticeship and the time spent on some sort of formal training that goes with it, there are still a few sectors with areas that should be probed a bit more. But that is not the biggest issue here anymore; the demand from employers is a bigger issue. The challenge is that it rightly varies very considerably between sectors, and you need someone from that sector to understand. There are a few sectors where there is a need for probing to find whether the quality is still there, but I would suggest that quality is not, overall, the biggest issue at the moment.

  Q14  Chairman: What is the biggest issue?

  Andy Powell: I think that it is the supply and demand. At this particular point in time, all the evidence suggests that the biggest issue is how we encourage employers to take on more young people. There are issues on the supply side as well.

  Q15  Chairman: We will be coming back to that later, when we shall be asking what is the nature of an apprenticeship based in college and what is the nature of a more traditional one, based with an employer. But we will hold that back for other colleagues. Can I just push you on the aspiration for 20%? If we are going to have 20% of people keen to enter apprenticeships, which is something that I have always supported, it is right that the quality has got to be there and that the brand has got to be right, so that the parents of young apprentices will have the comfort of knowing that this is a good qualification that leads them into a good way of work. Do we agree on that?

  Simon Bartley: Absolutely.

  Q16  Chairman: Is this new apprenticeship linked to the fact that the Government are at the same time going to raise the school leaving age to 18? Do you see this as a very important part of that development?

  Nick Edwards: Yes, I do. I have mentioned before that people can leave school at 16 at the moment and say that they are in training, but they are not; they are on low pay and working and picking up skills in the workplace without any formal qualifications. That has now stopped. They can go to the workplace at 16, but they will have to be on a formal training programme, gaining qualifications that recognise the skills that they have got. That is a really positive advance. Also, if the apprenticeships become part of the portfolio on offer for secondary school children at 16 to 18, you will probably start to make the numbers you want. At the moment, it is not a part of the portfolio. The IAG (Information, Advice and Guidance) in schools does not offer children that. There are many reasons for that. The diplomas have come in, and they are beginning to confuse the issue for young people and parents as to when you are getting engaged with the world of work and the skills for work. Most of the secondary school sector is now under Building Schools for the Future. There are new buildings, which are fantastic, but a lot of the schools have premised them on additional student numbers in terms of their resources. Secondary schools are looking to hold on to their learners. For a lot of learners, a secure environment, like a secondary school, is the right place to be, and they are being offered the diploma route. For a lot of learners, beginning to engage in the world of work supported by college and other training provider programmes is the appropriate route, and they are not necessarily getting that through IAG. It is the point that Andy alluded to: this is an excellent product. Parents like this product and recognise what it is, and young people like it. At both ends, the supply chain is the problem in getting people into the apprenticeship programme and securing employment opportunities at the other end. The product is good and the Bill has good initiatives, but the devil is in the detail of how they will pull this off.

  Q17  Chairman: Andy, any comments?

  Andy Powell: Again, relating to the continuing or leaving age, I think that they are mainly different things. The most important thing for the Government, and across Parliament, is that a message goes out to everyone that there are many paths to success for young people. It is not about parity of esteem between a work-based route, a mixed route or an academic route; it is about parity of resource and recognition, and that is the fundamental message that we must get across. As you know, I strongly support the importance of getting parents and all young people to understand those different routes even from a young age. However, extending the leaving age applies primarily, as I recall, to that 9 and 11%—I cannot remember which way round, but it is those not in education, employment and training, and those in employment but not in training. That is a different issue. Most young people want to learn and get on and it is about providing highly motivational and relevant ways of people learning. There is obviously a link, but I do not see that it is a strong connection, if I understood the question correctly.

  Q18  Chairman: So do you not see it as a coherent set of policies coming from the Government Department? On the one hand, there is the raising of the leaving age for education and learning to 18 and the new diplomas, and this new Apprenticeships Bill. Is this a joined up piece of policy or is it not?

  Andy Powell: Potentially. Where the issue still arises is in how a diploma relates to an apprenticeship, for example. I do not think we quite know yet.

  Q19  Chairman: Do none of you know? Diplomas have started, and we have apprenticeships. Do any of you know how they join up?

  Andy Powell: You can certainly transfer—perhaps I will look to my colleagues on this. You can do a Level 2 diploma and transfer to an apprenticeship. Indeed, you will need to make that available in the Bill, going from a Level 2—whether that is a GCSE or a diploma—to do a Level 2 apprenticeship. That is legitimate, and at the moment it is blocked in the Bill. I have a precise point to make, and then I will ask some of my colleagues who might know the detail better. The area that I always think is missing and that we are not yet sure about—this tries to put it in the language of any parent or employer; I, for example, have a 16-year-old boy—is when and why should I encourage my lad to do GCSEs and go on to A-levels? When should I suggest a diploma route? In theory, that mixture of theory and practice is excellent and would suit him very well. When should I put him in an apprenticeship? Similarly, for an employer, under what conditions and when and why might it be beneficial to employ someone on an apprenticeship who carries on learning that way, and when should they take someone who has done the diploma or A-levels, or a graduate? In the education and training world, we tend to get stuck on what exactly an apprentice and a completion rate are. This is simply a route of learning where people start beforehand and go on afterwards. We must understand that better in general layman's terms.

  Nick Edwards: I think that you are asking for a challenging amount of coherence of diplomas and apprenticeships. In terms of diplomas, you would ask, which Government target are they aimed at hitting? I suggest that they are hitting the HE target and encouraging more people to go to HE and vocational HE programmes, rather than hitting an apprenticeship target. The concept of transferability from diplomas is challenging. Somebody who has done a Level 2 construction diploma could not transfer to a Level 3 construction apprenticeship—they would need to go back and do a Level 2 construction apprenticeship. The Level 2 construction apprenticeship is a vocational training programme training people with skills for the workplace, which the diploma does not do. It is not a vocational programme; it is applied learning. That is a real challenge. You have products running alongside each other. If professionals in the sector cannot resolve that, then the customers—the parents and the young people—will not necessarily be able to resolve it themselves, either.

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