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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 49-59)


6 OCTOBER 2008

  Chairman: We welcome our second panel this afternoon: Martin Dunford, chairman of the Association of Learning Providers, who I am sure is interested in the answers to the last question; Sara Mogel of the Association of Colleges—I am sure Sara was interested—and Tom Wilson, the head of the Organisation and Services Department at the TUC. Thank you all very much indeed for coming this afternoon.

  Q49 Dr Blackman-Woods: The Association of Colleges has called for sufficient flexibility in the framework design of apprenticeships. Do you think there are problems with the existing arrangements? What changes do you want to see?

  Ms Mogel: I think I agree with the previous witnesses about the flexibility and meeting the needs of employers. The current system meets the needs of some employers but not all and those employers whose needs are perhaps not met will undertake ways of making those needs met but some will not. You can find that you have an apprenticeship framework that is not really preparing the young person for working within that particular employer's workplace but might be preparing them for a broader skills base. Somewhere along the line, there has to be a way of doing both things, giving them the transferable skills and giving a benefit to the employer who has taken the apprentice on. The new blueprint will give us that opportunity to set a standard to allow those things that are transferable to be taught to everybody. Everybody learns certain things in their workplace. It allows employers to tailor the rest of the training to meet their own individual needs and that is the benefit for the employer as opposed to the benefit for the young person.

  Q50  Dr Blackman-Woods: You said we should have a role in setting standards. Do you think the vocational educator should have a role in specifying apprenticeship standards?

  Ms Mogel: The content and the skills level should always be employer led in terms of ensuring that the young person gets a quality learning experience. That is the role of the provider. The role of the provider is to meet the needs of both the employer and the young person.

  Mr Dunford: It is not all about the employer. I have delivered thousands of apprentices over the years. If you explain to an employer properly that, if they start off with only wanting this half or this 60%, it is supposed to be a career enhancing qualification for the young person—that is why there is underpinning knowledge; that is why there are key skills—they take it on board. Woe betide us if we do everything employer led. Even though my whole career has been working with employers in vocational training, some of our best known retailers and household names may have a very narrow specification for qualifications. As Dr Gibson said, people move careers and it is a case of explaining it. It does need to be employer designed. That is why we have Sector Skills Councils, but it is about the individual as well and their educational attainment.

  Q51  Mr Boswell: Speaking as an entirely dispassionate outsider, I think occasionally the present Government misses out the union side of things. I think it is my painful role occasionally to draw that to their attention but, more seriously, we always talk about employer led but how do you bolt on the bilateral agreement or the association? There are good examples in industry; I know that, but how do you fill that relationship between your interest as it were and your interest also representing the individual young person and the employer to best articulate it?

  Mr Wilson: It is certainly true that unions have an enormous role to play. Thanks for the question because it enables me to talk about that. To be fair to this Government, they have done an awful lot to open all sorts of doors and create structures and pathways to help unions play a much bigger role. That is very welcome. If I can add to the previous debate, it is very important of course that apprenticeships are employer led. We would not dispute that at all, but it is equally important that they match up to certain objective standards. If there is one really key, important aspect of this Bill which we think does help the learner, it is the assurance of some kind of objective quality standard. Employers should determine the content and the skill level and so on but the standard and the quality of that content needs to be something which is set and approved. In return, the taxpayer will then fund it.

  Q52  Mr Boswell: They are not suffering as individuals?

  Mr Wilson: Exactly, and so they have genuinely transferable skills.

  Q53  Dr Blackman-Woods: How though can we ensure that quality is consistent across sectors if you go down the road of a lot of flexibility?

  Ms Mogel: That already happens to some extent with other qualifications. There is a core element and an optional element to it. Those standards are set by the awarding bodies and by Sector Skills Councils and of course by Ofsted. I assume they will be participating in measuring the standards of apprenticeships. It does need to have an external eye on it. It is very important that employers understand that, when they take on an apprentice, it is not quite the same as taking on another form of employee because of those external bodies that are looking at the quality of the experience of that employee.

  Mr Dunford: One of the most important reasons for the increase in attainment of apprenticeships and qualification rates is the inspection regime. The Adult Learning Inspectorate was staffed by people who had industry experience. The frameworks are set down. They are good in general and it was well inspected. It was a major competitive advantage to do well in that and that is why we have far fewer providers now. I speak as the chair of the Association of Learning Providers, that has always supported quality. They have had a marked impact along with a number of other things like online testing and key skills. If we talk about 25 to 60%, 25% was always going to happen when they introduced key skills. You had to take an exam four times a year and 82% of people got GCSEs at grade D or below in the services sector, with online testing and more frequent, flexible approaches to key skills and technical certificates. By the way, it should not just be off the job. You can do technical certificates at work with projects and so on. It has really improved the quality of the experience. I should say it is this casual name, "apprenticeships". Within that there is a myriad of different products from all the different sectors, some lasting six months, some lasting three years, some at level two, three and four, large employers, small employers and micro-employers. We have this catch all phrase of "apprenticeships" and we all have a vision about what it is. It is mostly crafts and technicians and that is not the current picture. Apprenticeship growth is in all sectors of the economy now and should be in more. There is a lot of regional bias that still needs to be tackled but it really is a good way of career enhancement, if it is done well, by a training provider or a college.

  Q54  Dr Blackman-Woods: With all that diversity, is the Bill doing enough to ensure that employers actually provide good quality training?

  Mr Dunford: I wish I had answered the question before: do we need the Bill? I do not remember anyone saying that we needed an Apprenticeship Bill before it happened. We assumed it was kind of there to make the National Apprenticeship Service work through primary legislation. In a way it is a bit of a red herring. The big issue is employer demand and building that demand. I think the demand is there if we get out and sell it, and very good information, advice and guidance for both young people and adults. The fastest growth in apprenticeships is with adults at the moment.

  Mr Wilson: It is precisely because of all that diversity and variety and difficulty in a sense in being clear about what an apprenticeship is. That is why we need the Bill. It will set out some standards. It will set out a framework. It will make people give it a profile and a brand. All of that is very important. The previous discussion was about will it add to bureaucracy or not. In a way, you reduce bureaucracy by being clearer about what the brand is.

  Q55  Dr Blackman-Woods: Is the Bill bringing in the changes that you want to see? Is it doing what it needs to be doing in terms of apprenticeships or not?

  Mr Wilson: It is bringing in quite a few of the changes we would like to see certainly. We are very pleased to see a coordinated, central agency, a body which will raise the profile of apprenticeships, above all, as I said before, a body which will guarantee a bit of quality assurance, a bit of clarity about the brand. A lot of that in turn will help people to think more seriously about apprenticeships when they are at school. It will give them a better kind of standing, if you like, in that kind of market place. It will help encourage people to look a bit more broadly and imaginatively so that you might find some boys doing hairdressing and some girls doing engineering, for example. It will help employers to think a bit more imaginatively about apprenticeships so that for example, in the public sector, we will begin to see the public sector taking on far more apprenticeships as they should. We might see people using procurement levers a bit more imaginatively in order to try and get more apprenticeships at least considered if not actually taken up. In all those sorts of second order ways, we think the Bill probably will achieve a great deal.

  Q56  Ian Stewart: This Bill intends to offer an apprenticeship through the Learning and Skills Council or its successors to every person who seeks one and is qualified to seek one. Does the sector have the capacity to cope with that?

  Mr Dunford: Not at the moment. We have achieved 230,000 people on apprenticeships at the moment and it is a real success story. To get to the 400,000 obviously requires an increase in capacity. One of the biggest blockages on Train to Gain growth for adults, which is another issue about the Apprenticeships Bill confusing employers by the way, is the capacity of the system in terms of qualified assessors and trainers. There needs to be some capacity building in that. If we get people from a specific industry, that is largely what training providers do. They recruit people who are construction experts or engineers, retail or customer service experts and train them. That is where we need to invest to help achieve the Government's targets and I believe the Opposition are quite pro-apprenticeships as well. There is not enough capacity in the system. There is a bit of a view that the employers are doing the training. They are in some cases, in the ones you think of that are traditional apprenticeships like British Aerospace, BT and so on. In the majority of cases they are not. They are supporting it and working in a tripartite relationship between the employer, the training provider and the individual.

  Ms Mogel: The picture that is being painted there of private training providers is the same in colleges. The way that we are building up the capacity is to take people from the industry and train them up so that they can take on the roles of assessors and in some cases deliverers of learning. Similarly, colleges also have their own expertise in learning that they can bring to that party. I think the bigger question is: do we have enough supply to meet the demand. With the economic downturn, I guess all of us are finding now that demand is outstripping supply. I would not have said that a year ago. I lead a college in the north west and in the north west we have employers who have a cultural history of offering apprenticeships but I think the issue now is whether, particularly in the short term, employers are willing to take on apprentices.

  Q57  Ian Stewart: How do you attract a young person into an apprenticeship rather than going into paid employment, which is the traditional pressure, or onto higher education?

  Ms Mogel: In terms of 16 to 18 year olds, most of them have very limited opportunities for paid employment now, particularly in some industries where if you are unskilled you will not be employed. Obviously if they are 16 to 18 they do not have a higher education option so their options often are school or college full time or apprenticeships. Apprenticeships will attract a different audience, if you like, a different young person who is interested in going into employment and it is their only way into employment at 16 to 18. One of the keys to attracting young people into apprenticeships is about raising the esteem and the value of apprenticeships and letting them know that they exist. That is why I welcome in the Bill that information, advice and guidance are writ large there because that is a major issue. We have talked about three of the partners in making a successful apprentice. That is, the young person themselves, the employer, the provider of the learning, but there is a fourth one and that is the parent. One of the things that this legislation might do is say to the parent: "This is a product that you will want for your young person."

  Q58  Ian Stewart: In the analysis which both Sara and Martin have put forward, trade unions were not mentioned as partners. What do you have to say about that?

  Mr Wilson: I think it is regrettable but we get used to it. Our view is that unions play an enormously important role on all sorts of levels, firstly in terms of quality assurance. On the shop floor the shop steward can make sure the apprentice is not getting a raw deal, they are getting the training they are supposed to get and as a result the quality they are supposed to get. At a higher level, there are all sorts of institutional mechanisms, the SSCs[4], the RDAs,[5] the LSC[6] itself where trade unions play a very important role. Again, we make sure that the quality of what is being offered to apprentices is not slipping back under these economics pressures. More broadly, the point Sara was making about the importance of raising the esteem of apprentices, that is absolutely true and a large part of what unions do is to go around banging the drum for apprenticeships as a very important, equally viable and equally attractive alternative to higher education. For a 16-year old, you are right, it may be more difficult to get a job these days, but if you are an apprentice, then thanks to the increase announced by the Secretary of State at TUC Congress, their minimum pay will go up from £80 to £95. The average apprentice pay is well over £150, £160, £170, so it is not such an unattractive option if you can get a good quality apprenticeship. What is really key, of course, is if that apprenticeship then genuinely leads on to higher education as a potential further route, then it is not as if you are closing off your options at 16 or 17 by going down one route rather than the other. Again, the unions have played an important role in all of that.

  Q59 Ian Stewart: My last point is to you, Tom. Martin and I think Sara also said that the identified lack of capacity may be met by people coming off the job and into training, 20,000 going on 30,000 trade union learning reps, do you see any developments and any connection between the two?

  Mr Wilson: Very much so. I think learning reps can play a very important role and their numbers are increasing rapidly and it is partly because they clearly meet that sort of demand. Obviously that is not going to be enough to meet the kind of demand we have been talking about, the increase that is needed, but they can certainly play a part and they can encourage lots more employers than you might think, even employers who do not necessarily recognise unions, to think twice about the value of unions and the importance of having a union input.

4   Sector Skills Councils Back

5   Regional Development Agencies Back

6   Learning and Skills Council Back

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