Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
6 OCTOBER 2008
Chairman: Could I thank our witnesses
today very much indeed for this one of two oral evidence sessions
on the Draft Apprenticeships Bill. Thank you all very much indeed
for coming on this, our first day after the long recess. We welcome
for our first session Richard Wainer, the head of education and
skills at the CBI, David Frost, the director general of the British
Chambers of Commerce, Anne Seaman, the chief executive of Skillsmart
Retail and an old friend, Matthew Jaffa, the acting deputy head
of policy at the Federation of Small Businesses.
Q1 Mr Marsden: I am going to direct
my first question to David Frost and Richard Wainer. It is a double
question. Do we need this Bill and, if we do need it, how is it
going to affect the way in which you take apprentices on or not?
Mr Wainer: I think we do need
this Bill. It introduces a number of very welcome flexibilities
in the way employers will be able to run their apprenticeship
programmes, in particular allowing employers themselves to design,
probably with support from the new National Apprenticeship Service
and the Sector Skills Councils, their own frameworks for the benefit
of their businesses' skills needs. The priority for a government
apprenticeship policy has to be ensuring that more employers are
getting involved. That is what drives quality and completion rates,
so ensuring the apprenticeship programme and the apprenticeship
framework that is on offer to employers better meets their needs
will encourage more businesses to get involved.
Q2 Mr Marsden: David, Richard has
just given me an answer which slightly underlines that much of
what the Government is trying to do with this Bill is aspirational.
Do we need legislation to achieve those aspirations?
Mr Frost: Yes, I think we do.
I think it is important that we have the framework. Why? Because
we need, I believe, to raise how apprenticeships are viewed not
just within business but within society as a whole. If we are
to do that to make them a real quality route through employment,
we believe that this Bill will help.
Q3 Mr Marsden: Richard mentioned
flexibility in his response to me. Do you think the current structures
of apprenticeships are not flexible enough?
Mr Frost: We believe that the
current structure does not result in apprenticeships being valued
in the way that they should be. Employers, parents and young people
are not necessarily convinced of the quality of apprenticeships
as a progressive route through to a future career.
Q4 Mr Marsden: Is that because often
and certainly most recently a large number of them have been delivered
by brokers rather than directly?
Mr Frost: We believe that for
a successful apprenticeship they should be delivered by the employer.
The employer must be at the heart of an apprenticeship system.
It must be employer led.
Q5 Mr Marsden: Historically, the
attitude of employers in well entrenched areas where there have
been apprenticeships has been very good and very strong. There
are other so-called new apprenticeship areas where the performance
and acceptance have been much more patchy. What is there in this
Bill that will make those employers who have traditionally not
been involved in apprenticeships feel, "Right, this is something
we really ought to go for"?
Mr Wainer: We have to recognise
that an apprenticeship in engineering or construction, while there
will be common elements, will be different to an apprenticeship
in retail, hospitality and in hairdressing, for example. By making
sure that employers can have the power to design their own frameworks
and make sure that the skills the apprentice is going to be learning
and the qualifications they are going to be working towards are
relevant to that sector, that is the most important point in this
Q6 Mr Marsden: Anne, obviously you
are here today representing Skillsmart Retail. From your perspective,
what is there in the provisions of this Bill that is going to
make your members more enthusiastic about taking on apprenticeships?
Ms Seaman: I am actually here
on behalf of the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils but I am from
Skillsmart Retail so I will be speaking on behalf of all of those.
Q7 Mr Marsden: In that case your
reply should be even more authoritative.
Ms Seaman: I think it reinforces
Richard's point. It is about fitness for purpose. It is ensuring
that the frameworks meet the needs of the employers. What surprised
me when I came into this particular job was how different the
sector needs are around apprenticeships. One size does not fit
all in terms of the frameworks and you need to understand the
sector, how it works and how it will affect the daily business
to ensure that it works in an effective way for the employers
and for the people undertaking the apprenticeships.
Q8 Mr Marsden: Portability in the
past has been a big issue in terms of the apprenticeship debate,
whether apprenticeships are too tightly structured to cope with
the actual ebb and flow of apprenticeship work programmes. Is
there anything in this Bill of itself that is going to improve
Ms Seaman: If we make sure that
the blueprint is robust, essentially having a national framework
that all the apprenticeships adhere to so you have the common
aspects of that on a national basis will ensure that there is
an amount of portability. I think that is one of the challenges
around employer designed apprenticeships. We have to be aware
and make sure that those fit the framework and are national benchmarks,
if you like, so that they are transferable because the whole apprenticeship
will be undermined if it is not portable. That is one of the things
we have to guard against.
Q9 Chairman: What is the incentive
for a small employer who wants to take on an apprentice to grow
his or her business and they suddenly find out that they are having
to meet something which the Secretary of State might lay down,
which is of no great benefit to them even though it will be of
benefit to the individual?
Ms Seaman: If they are designed
properly, that should not occur. I have personal experience a
while ago of having a YTS<ep<nh<rs
in a small business and it was fantastic. It was an extra pair
of hands. Okay, you had to go to college one day a week but it
really made a difference to our business. We were able to take
on another store because we had someone who could look after the
shop while we banked the takings and so on. Whilst that is the
value of having an apprentice, they can learn but they can really
add value, particularly for small businesses.
Q10 Mr Boswell: If this is as flexible
as you, Richard and others, would like, can we stack up a common
ground? I am familiar with the world of the more formal, academic
qualifications and also vocational qualifications. You are always
struggling with this issue about if it is particularly course
or topic specific or if it is a piece of currency you can take
with you. Can we really square this circle effectively?
Ms Seaman: I think the apprenticeship
brand is gathering credibility. The recent investment, the promotion,
the blueprint that has really said this is a framework that is
consistent across all sectors but respects the need and is fit
for purpose in different sectors is a brand that we can build
Q11 Mr Marsden: Matthew, there are
some very good small businesses with a long tradition of great
pride in terms of recruiting apprentices but equally it has been
true historically, in terms of new apprenticeships, that small
businesses have often had quite a lot of difficulties in that
area. Do you see anything in this Bill that is going to make it
easier for small businesses to take on apprentices?
Mr Jaffa: The main thing that
we see of interest in this Bill is that, by giving a Bill, it
gives importance to the idea of apprenticeships. Therein lies
the problem. The Bill is missing certain things that are necessary
for a small business and in particular a micro-business for taking
on an apprenticeship. Chairman, you highlighted the point well
that for years we have been asking for informal, bite sized learning
that is going to benefit the micro-business of one to two employees,
but it is very difficult for the Secretary of State or the Sector
Skills Council, whoever is going to authorise particular frameworks,
to say what a small, micro-business needs. They are still churning
out apprenticeship frameworks that small businesses do not need
and they are not geared towards the needs of the micro-business.
Q12 Mr Marsden: It is still top down
and not bottom up?
Mr Jaffa: Yes.
Q13 Mr Marsden: David, Harold Wilson
famously said a week is a long time in politics. We have had a
few months since this draft Bill was published and that has been
an eternity in terms of the economy. Do you think the economic
downturn and the uncertainty that we are now having poses a huge
challenge in terms of the Government's ambitions of renaissance
Mr Frost: In the short term it
will but I am an optimist. Having been through three recessions
before, it is my view that at some stage we are going to come
out the other side, hopefully sooner rather than later. What we
clearly have to be in a position to do is to meet the aspirations
of the employers who provide an apprenticeship service which is
valued by the employee. There is no right time to launch this
but at some stage the economy and employers will be in a position
where they need apprentices.
Q14 Ian Stewart: Matthew, Richard
and David, to what extent does this Bill give employers the freedom
to create apprenticeships as they see the need for them?
Mr Wainer: A lot will depend on
how this Bill is put into practice. Clearly there are clauses
in the Bill to allow employers or any organisation, not just the
Sector Skills Council as it is now, to produce an apprenticeship
framework that has to be approved by the Sector Skills Council.
Putting this into practice, it will be important that the Sector
Skills Councils do not restrict that flexibility and do not introduce
more rigidity in the system and perhaps undermine some of these
provisions. If some of our world class employersthe likes
of McDonalds, Tesco, Nissandevelop an apprenticeship framework
that is fit for them, then it really should be fit for the whole
Q15 Ian Stewart: Does that stand
for small businesses?
Mr Jaffa: I would not totally
agree. There is not enough in this Bill for us to see where we
can be involved with the process. There are so many different
bodies. You have the Sector Skills Council; you now have Group
Training Associations mentioned in the Bill, the National Apprenticeship
Service, and it is very difficult for small businesses to know
where to engage. We could be involved in the idea of Group Training
Associations and that would help the process of them matching
up how to engage with the service because the GTA would do the
work for you and that would take a lot of the pressure off small
businesses trying to engage with the system. In effect we would
support the idea of the GTAs as long as we know who the employer
still is. From my understanding of it, it would appear that GTAs
are kind of the employer so there might be issues regarding contracts
of employment that might be a concern for our members.
Q16 Ian Stewart: Anne highlighted
the desire for apprentices to gain transferable, career enhancing
skills. How much are your members interested in that?
Mr Jaffa: The main skills that
our members want are skills that are needed for them to function
on the job and to hit the ground running. Literacy, numeracy and
ICT skills are important but it is not the responsibility for
an employer to take on an apprentice, to train in literacy, numeracy
and ICT skills on the first day. It should be on the job skills.
Those particular skillsliteracy, numeracy and ICTshould
be within the education system.
Q17 Ian Stewart: Can the system deliver
what your members want?
Mr Jaffa: I am yet to be convinced.
Mr Frost: Putting the employer
at the heart of this is going to be key. Employers are confused
and bemused by the constant, frequent changes in vocational training
and are also concerned about the number of agencies literally
that are knocking on their door, trying to sell them training
services. We need to be clear where the National Apprenticeship
Service is going to fit into this and which of the organisations
it is going to need to liaise and interface with. The concept
of a Group Training Association will be at the heart for many
small and medium sized businesses because the world of apprenticeships
has changed from when a lot of people of my generation were involved,
where you had very large companies that were embedded in the regions
that would often recruit 50, 70 or 100 apprentices at a time for
both their own purposes and then for other business as well. Those
have now gone. What we are looking at is a concept where one or
two apprentices perhaps are being taken by a number of companies
and we have effective delivery of training for those which brings
in the Group Training Association. The other big change is we
have had a fundamental shift in the structure of business away
from manufacturing, where of course the apprenticeship was embedded
in, now much more to a service sector economy. I think it is going
to be a real challenge to deliver effective apprentices in that
service sector and I do not think we are there yet.
Q18 Ian Stewart: Can we get a consensus
of where each of the organisations represented can get from this
Bill what it is looking for? I am mindful, Matthew, of what you
said on behalf of your members. If so, how do we get there?
Ms Seaman: I think we can. One
of the challenges is around complexity and being clear about the
boundaries and relationships between the organisations involved.
All employers complain about the complexity and bureaucracy around
this area and particularly around apprenticeships. It is having
clarity about who does what and who should be talking to who,
what the various roles are. I just want to make a point about
flexibility though because there is flexibility in the design
of the framework, which means bite size, fit for purpose and embedding
the basic skills areas, but there is also flexibility around delivery.
A lot of the challenges around apprenticeships are how flexible
we can be in delivery, in assessment processes and so on. The
flexibility has to be there in both aspects of that to make it
deliverable and to embed it within businesses.
Q19 Chairman: I am gobsmacked here,
a northern phrase. All of you have mentioned the level of complexity,
bureaucracy and everything else and here is another Bill that
adds to it all. You are all saying, "This is great."
Richard, sorry. I am putting words into your mouth, accusing you
Ms Seaman: We are hoping that
this Bill will bring some clarity to all that, with definitions
around what the National Apprenticeship Service is there for,
what the Sector Skills Councils' role is and some flexibility
around Group Training Associations so that we can deliver the
economies of scale.
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