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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 160-179)


27 OCTOBER 2008

  Q160  Mr Boswell: I would not disagree with you, having been a member of one. Nevertheless, it is a question of whether you will actually assume a duty to do that.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: I cannot see any barriers to them when we see it as an essential part of our strategy to maximise apprenticeships.

  Jim Knight: The only thing I would add to what Tony has said is that between the two departments we have also got to ensure that we have the resource to stimulate them. Clearly, we have a certain amount of resource for the NAS to spend on apprenticeships and they have to balance up the various things—the vacancy matching service, some of the other promotion that we do, the structural things that you do with GTAs and so on. That is the context against which we would have to look at things like duties and how widely we can create an expectancy that everyone will be able to get help in setting up a GTA.

  Q161  Mr Boswell: What about having a subsidy for the employer, particularly if they are a small business? Are you thinking about that?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: Given that we are talking about a draft bill, I think we understand the point that you are making. What you are saying is that small and medium sized employers need every encouragement they can to participate. We could not make any promises in relation to that. We can just examine and discuss with them what the needs and the barriers are and if there is any more we can do that is feasible.

  Q162  Mr Marsden: One of the issues that the Federation of Small Businesses expressed reservations about on the Government's proposals when they gave evidence to us, although they were broadly supportive, was that you really have not in their view done enough to address the issue of informal bite-sized learning. We know from the evidence out there that the current apprenticeship structures are ones that a lot of small businesses find difficult to cope with and therefore will a more bite-sized, portable approach to training and development come within the framework agreement arrangements which are envisaged in the legislation?

  Mr Marston: The way we are expecting that to work is that an apprenticeship programme is intended to be a way of acquiring a serious breadth of skill, knowledge, competence and understanding that you can use in the workplace.

  Q163  Mr Marsden: With respect, Stephen, that is rhetoric, and that is always the case. What it comes down to in brass tacks is that small employers are telling us that the structures that have been produced are not appropriate for the sort of work patterns they have and that nothing has been done to address that.

  Mr Marston: The apprenticeship programme is an important part, but only one part, of the support that we are trying to offer to SMEs with training. We had a previous discussion in the Committee about Train to Gain and one effect of last week's announcement on the packages for SMEs is that we will in future be supporting in private sector SMEs more bite-sized, unitised training. But an apprenticeship should be a serious, heavyweight training programme that enables a young person or an adult to make a step change in their ability to contribute in employment. It is really not about short, bite-sized chunks. If that is what you want to do that is absolutely fine for business and we will support it through Train to Gain but it is not what an apprenticeship programme should be about. That should be a serious qualification to equip you with a breadth of skill you do not otherwise have.

  Q164  Mr Marsden: With the Chairman's indulgence, and it will be a quick retort but it is also a quick question, with respect, if we adopted that principle in respect of higher education half the university courses in the country would be blasted off the curriculum. The idea that because you do something on a sequential, modular, credit-based basis, if you want to look at it that way, it is not consistent with some form of strong apprenticeship or strong learning programme, is one that I think most people would regard as really rather silly.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: I think we might be at cross-purposes here. There is nothing wrong with a sequential or modular approach, and after all we are serious when we say that the whole idea of designing frameworks is that they are designed in consultation with employers. If they come to the Sector Skills Council and they say they want a modular approach as part of that framework, provided it meets reasonable quality criteria we should be able to respond to that. Otherwise we are failing in what should be one of the main drivers of this. We are going out and saying to employers, "We want to listen to what you want. We want these apprenticeships to reflect your needs", so if that is what you are on about we ought to be able to accommodate a modular approach without undermining the quality of the apprenticeship, which is what Stephen was stressing.

  Mr Marston: What we have said, and it is here in the Bill, is that one component of all apprenticeship frameworks must be a defined principal qualification or qualifications. By all means, as part of the wider qualification reform programme qualifications will be unitised, and people will be able to do chunks of training, but the point of this is that we are trying to work towards a worthwhile, valuable qualification.

  Q165  Chairman: I think it is absolutely fair, Lord Young, and I hope you do not get the impression that we want anything other than a high quality apprenticeship programme. I think we are at one on that.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: Yes. It was flexibility that was being stressed, I think.

  Q166  Chairman: But would you accept that the specification of apprenticeship standards provided in clauses 11-15 in the draft Bill are absolutely essential to having a high quality apprenticeship scheme?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: Indeed.

  Q167  Chairman: The answer to that is yes, I hope.

  Jim Knight: It is slightly bizarre.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: If all the questions were like that and I could agree with them all it would be easy.

  Q168  Chairman: The question is why therefore have you not published a draft specification in the Bill because the draft specification would give us an idea as to what your thinking is and it is absent?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: We are tightening up the requirements of the Learning and Skills Council. There is an existing blueprint that all frameworks have to relate to. We are making that much more rigorous.

  Q169  Chairman: So why not a specification? We understand what the blueprint is because that is in existence at the moment but you are saying it is going to be different from the blueprint, so why have you not got a draft specification?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: As long as we define the key principles in the Bill do we really want to say that every time we might want to change an aspect of that it would require primary legislation? I think you are right to demand something that is a key determinant of quality but I think we have done it unless I am mistaken.

  Mr Marston: Chairman, you are right, we have not yet published the proposed form of the new blueprint, I am afraid. We will do that as rapidly as possible. We have put out in World-class Apprenticeships an outline of what that blueprint will cover and the way in which it will move on from the blueprint that already exists on a non-statutory basis.

  Q170  Chairman: I think again we are at cross-purposes here. The point of having this scrutiny of the draft Bill is to see what the Government's intentions are and unless you produce a draft specification we do not know what your intentions are.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: Let me reassure you. We will have a specification for the Second Reading.

  Q171  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

  Jim Knight: Chairman, obviously, the explanatory notes set out a little bit of the thinking and reference to the World-class Apprenticeships paper. Across all of that it is possible to see what we are talking about but you will get it at Second Reading.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

  Q172  Mr Boswell: May I turn to what could sound like an old chestnut, which is the relationship between apprenticeships and the wider qualifications framework? I am particularly interested in the core elements of apprenticeships as they are developed, and will the attainment of an apprenticeship be interchangeable with GCSEs and A-levels for the other area we have not talked about yet, which is entry to higher education or development?

  Jim Knight: We set out in the qualification strategy of the two departments a few months ago how we wanted to move from this plethora—obviously, particularly as far as I am concerned, up to 19—of qualifications that we were funding and distil it down in principle to a foundation learning tier that then underpins a three-pronged set of choices—traditional GCSE, A-level, the traditional vocational apprenticeship and then the bridging qualification in the form of diplomas. Obviously, there then needs to be an equivalence read-across and we have the development of the qualification and credit framework in order to offer that, particularly post-19, but the equivalence is there in respect of the NVQ[10] levels and I know that there has been some discussion, for example, about being able to move from a Level 2 diploma into a Level 3 apprenticeship, for example. There is no reason why you cannot do that. There may be some issues in respect of having the practical skills in detail that you would get at Level 2 in an apprenticeship that would then allow you to do a Level 3 apprenticeship. The diploma, being a sector-specific qualification rather than an occupation-specific qualification, may not give you some of those practical skills, so you might need to do some work in order to catch those up before you can then go on to do a Level 3. In principle what we are after is a level 2 is a level 2, be it a GCSE, an apprenticeship or a diploma, and a level 3 is a level 3 and so on.

  Q173 Mr Boswell: A couple of follow-ups. One is Rathbone have given us evidence and suggested that about 70% of its apprentices have additional educational needs, that is of course not SEN but some forms of remedial support rather along the lines you mentioned. Will the Bill be able to cope with the educational needs of apprentices, specifically on moving from level 2 to level 3, for example?

  Jim Knight: The overall delivery will and to some extent we get back to the extent to which we have already set out what would be in the standard or not. The standard will be specific on transferable skills, particularly functional skills. You will need to be able to develop the necessary competence at the necessary level in respect of functionality. We are building personal learning and thinking skills and functional skills into the diplomas quite deliberately but, similarly, the apprenticeship's standard, which the frameworks would have to deliver on, would include those transferable skills.

  Q174  Mr Boswell: Will you be intending to have what you might call a marketing campaign among HEIs,[11] for example, to make sure that once this is set out they are likely to take notice of what is on offer?

  Jim Knight: Yes. Obviously this Committee is more expert than I on the independence of universities and how important it is to win their hearts and minds rather than tell them what to do and we will be working very hard to do that.

  Mr Marston: One other component of the blueprint will be that it requires frameworks to set out progression routes so you can see how you can move from an apprenticeship to an advanced apprenticeship and on into higher education.

  Mr Boswell: That is helpful.

  Q175  Mr Marsden: Lord Young, your colleague, Jim Knight, has just mentioned about hearts and minds and the HE[12] sector. I will resist the temptation to ask you to comment on, I think it was, Lyndon Johnson who said that when you have them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow, but we will not go down that route. What I would like to ask you, if I may, is there is clearly a big issue as to the extent to which apprenticeships and vocational qualifications in general will be accepted by higher education institutions. The Edge Foundation have suggested that a provision on the face of this Bill which might entitle all apprenticeships to access to a higher education course in parallel to their apprenticeships would be useful in that process. Do you think that sort of provision would prove that apprenticeships are a genuine alternative to A levels, diplomas and other full-time courses in terms of accessing HE?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: Certainly we want to ensure that, as has already been said, there is a means of them progressing into higher education, yes. Indeed, if you look at what happens in life, young people find that just because they go on a route via an apprenticeship it does not stop them ending up in higher education. Do we want to encourage that process? Do we want to ensure that where we can qualifications lead to UCAS[13] points? Yes, we do.

  Q176 Mr Marsden: Do you agree also, in view of what we know about demography and the changes, that increasingly HE applicants themselves will be in an older age range and, therefore, this issue is an issue for adult apprenticeships as well as apprenticeships for young people?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: Yes. We are not just envisaging apprenticeships starting from the normal age, we are envisaging a significant increase in adult apprenticeships as well and, indeed, we are beginning to see that.

  Mr Marston: To try to encourage that progression we are working with two of the current Sector Skills Councils, SEMTA[14] and e-Skills, on looking precisely at the UCAS tariff equivalent of what goes into their apprenticeships and then we can take that as model to show how you can build progression routes from apprenticeships into HE.

  Q177 Chairman: Gordon Marsden's question, I think, is really quite pertinent to whether in fact you are going to put on the face of the final Bill a requirement of higher education which is due to take this into account rather than just a pious hope that they will. The answer is no?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: I do not know that currently we plan to do that.

  Q178  Chairman: Why not, if it is that important?

  Mr Marston: New primary legislation relating to admissions to universities would—

  Chairman: Is it a requirement to consider? It would have to be in their admissions criteria.

  Q179  Mr Marsden: It is a tweak on the balls rather than grabbing them.

  Jim Knight: Surely if we can get UCAS, HEFCE[15] and others without touching their more sensitive genitalia or parts of their anatomy to want to do it, then that is more persuasive in the end.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: Apparently we are going to commission a joint HEFCE, FDF, LSC and NAS review of vocational progression to foundation degrees. We do understand the importance of this, it is important, but putting it on the face of the Bill, we certainly had not planned to do that.

  Chairman: Could I say on a personal note, I find that an incredibly disappointing cop-out, that you are not prepared really to stand up to higher education and make sure that apprenticeship routes and vocational routes into higher education have got the same validity as you would have with GCSE and A level, but I will move on to Rob Wilson.

10   National vocational qualifications Back

11   Higher education institutions Back

12   Higher education Back

13   University and Colleges Admissions Service Back

14   Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering And Manufacturing Technologies Back

15   Higher Education Funding Council for England Back

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