Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)


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 Bill.

  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 portability?

  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[1]<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 on now.

  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 in apprenticeships?

  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 employers—the likes of McDonalds, Tesco, Nissan—develop an apprenticeship framework that is fit for them, then it really should be fit for the whole sector.

  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 skills—literacy, numeracy and ICT—should 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 wrongly.

  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.

1   Youth Training Scheme Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 5 December 2008