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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 20-39)


6 OCTOBER 2008

  Q20  Ian Stewart: Do we need a new Act of Parliament for that?

  Mr Wainer: There are a lot of issues around apprenticeships that will not be solved by legislation. Anne picked up the point of bureaucracy and red tape. That does not need legislation to solve the problems there.

  Q21  Chairman: Ian's question is absolutely right. What is in this Bill that needs legislation, that we could not do through good regulation or discussing with employers?

  Mr Wainer: I think it comes back to my first point around ensuring that the frameworks are fit for purpose and allowing employers to have that strong input because at the moment the process is that the Sector Skills Councils assess the framework and other organisations, other businesses, cannot have that strong input.

  Chairman: You are an optimist.

  Q22  Dr Gibson: I thought the world now was a world where individuals had several jobs throughout their lives. There was this old fashioned idea that you went into the shipyards in the upper Clyde and you were there for life. It does not happen that way any more. People maybe have four or five jobs, go to Europe or elsewhere, and their skills change. You would have an apprenticeship 10 times in a year to suit the particular job that you move to. Is that not the world today? People move about more than the old fashioned idea of one job for life.

  Mr Frost: I agree. I think that is why this has to be part of a framework. It has to be clear with the ability to progress for example from doing an apprenticeship through to doing a degree and beyond. It should not just be viewed in isolation.

  Q23  Mr Boswell: Can I ask a bit more about the details in apprenticeship agreements and perhaps a little bit more about the relationship between the frameworks and the agreements themselves? Who is going to specify that kind of thing? Is it going to be the employers? Is it going to need approval by the National Apprenticeship Service or whatever? That will lead on to a question about bureaucracy but let us just deal with the nuts and bolts. Who is in charge of the delivery of the apprenticeship agreements and then ultimately of their implementation?

  Mr Jaffa: To be honest with you, I cannot give you the answer as to who we think is in charge of the system. That is why we are probably at the lower end in terms of enthusiasm for this kind of Bill because unfortunately, as small businesses, we do not know how to engage with this system. We feel that when these agreements are made they are very geared towards large and medium sized businesses and not the micro, small businesses. We have a case study in the south west where a consortium of small and large employers was trying to get an engineering qualification agreed and it was going through for about a year but at the last minute was pulled because the local colleges did not feel they could agree to the particular issues that the small businesses were asking for. This is just one case study. Small businesses will find it hardest through this system to get any kind of accreditation.

  Q24  Mr Boswell: Can I bring in my other question which is about off the job training, time in college or whatever? Clearly that is important and nobody is saying we should not have any. How much is that, in your book, going to be specified or does it need to be specified in order to establish the external credibility of the apprenticeship, or do you really want that to be something which is very much a matter for employer resolution?

  Mr Jaffa: The idea of the old fashioned day release is not what we are looking for. We do agree with time spent in local colleges as long as you are employed within a business. We have no problem there. We are fine with that as long as it is not the traditional day release. It has to be locally provided, locally sourced. The brokerage is showing that it is for the needs to be relevant for a small business, whether it be a specific time, or locally based or through bite sized chunks, not taking a day out of the organisation.

  Q25  Mr Boswell: Can I ask the three others now to respond on the bureaucracy point and this tension again between detail and general specification?

  Mr Wainer: The Bill does not detail what apprenticeship standards should look like.

  Q26  Mr Boswell: Should it?

  Mr Wainer: No. I think it should be down to the individual employer to determine that with the apprentice. Of course it has to be a balance between that flexibility and high quality experience for the apprentice. That will entail some off the job time but, as Matthew said, that has to be delivered flexibly. It is not just going down every Friday afternoon to your local college.

  Q27  Mr Boswell: Are you at all worried that the NAS is going to come along with a very prescriptive model? What worries me is that there are lots of good intensions and a lot of enthusiasm, but it might just all fall foul on bureaucracy and that is slightly the tenor of the evidence we have received. Are you rehearsing that as a doubt and worry?

  Mr Wainer: I think that is a concern, yes.

  Mr Frost: The NAS has to show real added value. It may well be that it needs some form of regional structure, engaging with business and those other agencies.

  Q28  Mr Boswell: It is not an email to Coventry, as it were, that is suddenly going to produce the answer to the problem. It is a local dialogue?

  Mr Frost: Yes.

  Ms Seaman: Can I make a point about time out of the business, because I do not think it is always necessary. It depends on the particular apprenticeship, the particular business and the individual involved. You must remember that these apprenticeships are also valuable for adults already working within businesses. Therefore, going to college may not always be appropriate. Certainly we have seen examples of apprenticeships being delivered wholly within a business. Obviously there is time out within the business to do particular aspects—one or two hours—but on the job, in the workplace, is the best way for them to be delivered.

  Q29  Mr Boswell: You would see a central edict that there had to be so much time off the job as being over specification and inappropriate?

  Ms Seaman: The appropriate specification is around the blueprint in terms of what a national benchmark framework should look like. Then it depends very much on the sector and the businesses involved as to how it gets delivered and designed.

  Q30  Mr Boswell: Towards the objective?

  Ms Seaman: Yes.

  Q31  Chairman: What confuses me with your responses and with Matthew's responses to a large extent is, if you want employers to be the determinant of what an apprenticeship scheme should be and what goes into it, why on earth should the taxpayer fund it?

  Ms Seaman: That is a challenge and I do not think all employers necessarily expect it to be funded. Certainly that is not the first question that employers often ask. With young people, certainly 16 to 18 year olds, there is an element of ongoing training and development, of gearing them up for work and whether that is in a specific sector that serves them for their lifetime or it develops a transferable skill, the employability skills, through that apprenticeship that they need throughout their lifetime, I think there is an expectation that that would be supported or subsidised. I think it depends on an individual case basis around adult apprenticeships, for example, depending what the circumstances are coming in perhaps from unemployment for a long period, getting onto the ladder. They need support and help and they may need additional support in the business. The business cannot always carry that full cost so there might be an argument for subsidy and so on. It will depend on sectors as well.

  Q32  Dr Iddon: Group Training Associations are as old as The Beatles. They date back to the sixties and they are very strong in the engineering sector. I have a figure of 88 of these charitable organisations operating in that sector. Can they adopt the Heineken principle? In other words, will they reach the sectors that have never been reached by Group Training Associations as a result of this Bill turning into an Act?

  Chairman: Be positive here.

  Mr Jaffa: We are supportive of Group Training Associations. I did not know they had been around as long as The Beatles. The Group Training Associations are good if a small business gets involved and it can be joined by other small business and there is a network of small businesses. However, we feel that the large businesses will be dominating and have the best choice and will pick and choose who they want in terms of apprenticeships. It is very hard for a small business to say which ones it wants. More often than not, they will get maybe the last pickings really and maybe that is the reason why in particular graduates and high level candidates go into larger businesses before they go into smaller businesses. Small businesses are prepared to pay for apprenticeships. It is just the idea of literacy and numeracy skills that they are not prepared to pay for, but we are in effect calling for an increase in the national minimum wage for apprenticeships that was set last week. We feel they should be paid more as that will increase completion levels.

  Q33  Dr Iddon: Are you saying therefore that not all sectors of the economy will have access to a Group Training Association?

  Mr Jaffa: We do not think so. I am yet to be convinced on that particular one.

  Q34  Dr Iddon: You obviously agree that if a young man or woman is looking for an apprenticeship they are not going to choose a small company first, are they?

  Mr Jaffa: That is the problem with the system.

  Q35  Dr Iddon: How do we encourage apprentices to go into small companies? Do we offer something extra?

  Mr Jaffa: I do not want to get into party politics but I do think a certain amount given before the apprentice signs up to encourage them to go into a small business, or an amount given to a small business to take on an apprentice, might be more of an incentive for that small business to advertise or be more forthcoming in terms of who they are going to attract.

  Mr Frost: The question lies at the heart of the issues. In essence, in many parts of the UK there are no large businesses so the only option for young people is to go and work for a small company. The only way that this will work is by ensuring that apprenticeships are seen as a high quality qualification because they are not. We have the position where vocational training is not seen as being the first option for either parents, teachers or young people and therefore I think we will see the emergence of a number of innovative ways of delivering training, getting small companies to come together to provide that. I think a Group Training Association may well lie at the heart of that.

  Q36  Dr Iddon: Do you think there has to be a financial incentive to do that or will it happen without?

  Mr Frost: It is interesting. If you look at the development of Group Training Associations when the ITBs[2] were set up, there were clearly financial incentives to do that. They may well be needed again, yes.

  Q37 Mr Wilson: There has been some criticism of the quality of some apprenticeships in recent years. In the new structure of things, if an employer does not have the time to supervise and train an apprentice properly, should they have access to government funds?

  Mr Frost: No. If it is a programme that is not part of the framework, then I do not think they should have access to funds.

  Q38  Chairman: At the heart of what we are trying to get at is this issue about growing numbers and equating that to quality, because simply growing numbers will not do anybody any great service.

  Mr Frost: Absolutely. If the Government simply wants to go to a relentless increase in volumes, this will not work. The reason why large numbers of people have now gone off for an academic route with the huge expansion of higher education is because apprenticeships have not been seen as quality alternatives. Simply to go for volume at the expense of quality will just consign this programme to the dustbin.

  Q39  Mr Wilson: Would therefore a better progression from apprenticeship into higher education be particularly attractive to get more people to become apprentices?

  Mr Frost: Unquestionably. They want to be seen as being part of a natural route to move on.

  Mr Wainer: We have to see that moving into higher education is not just about going on to do three year full time undergraduate degrees. Higher education is much more flexible than that. You have companies like BT offering level four apprenticeships which deliver foundation degrees, so I think we have to get ourselves away from the mindset that progression to higher education is not just going to university for three years full time.

  Ms Seaman: One of the critical things here is getting that agreement right up front so that everybody is clear about their expectations in terms of the employer, the provider and the individual. If everybody is clear about that up front, I think that will assist in terms of all the expectations of the people involved to improve the quality and make sure that some of those things you talked about do not arise. If they do, then the funding is not available.

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