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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 180-195)


27 OCTOBER 2008

  Q180  Mr Wilson: I will try and steer clear of balls for the next couple of questions. The British Chambers of Commerce have raised a pretty legitimate concern with this Committee and I hope that you can reassure us about it. David Frost said: "Simply to go for volume at the expense of quality will just consign this programme to the dustbin". It does raise a very pertinent point in that how do you ensure that quality does not suffer as you rapidly expand this apprenticeship programme.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: We talked about a more rigorous route in the specification which we said that we will provide in the Second Reading. After all, there is a good deal of current experience in designing frameworks, they do have to meet their criteria. We agree that there is an important balance to be struck here and you cannot just drive up volume, if you like, without ensuring that you sustain the quality and the brand. If somebody goes through an apprenticeship, it should be something that they should be proud of at the end of that process. We believe that with the frameworks which have to be agreed, there is a balance to be struck between, if you like, the reasonable demands of employers saying that it should reflect the flexibility which they require within meeting the demands that are currently laid out by the Learning and Skills Council in their blueprint. We have 180 frameworks at the moment, it is a good deal of experience about what should constitute an apprenticeship. I cannot see a sudden departure from that process.

  Jim Knight: Could I add, and then Stephen will mop up what is left, that beyond that importantly the frameworks sit with employers through the Sector Skills Council and sometimes employers by themselves, it is in their interests to ensure the quality. It is also something that we inspect. Ofsted inspects the provision and they do so on a proportionate basis, but we have that inspection of quality and then we have the performance management of the post-16 providers through the Framework for Excellence. In turn, by including apprenticeships' success rates as one of the measures within the Framework for Excellence for that element of apprenticeship which is delivered by training providers, we have got quite an important lever in ensuring quality.

  Mr Marston: I want to add that I think the Committee and, indeed, David could take some comfort from what has happened over the past few years. In 2001-02 apprenticeship framework completion rates were standing at 24%, they are now at 63%. Over that period we have significantly expanded volume and dramatically raised quality. We will aim to keep that same combination of increased volume and higher quality as we continue to expand the programme.

  Q181  Mr Wilson: As you have mentioned it, Jim, let us talk about Ofsted because in Network Rail's submission to us it said: "The LSC and Ofsted are bureaucratic and their auditing of our standards excessive". There is a tension, is there not, in these discussions? How are you going to balance the demand for quality with businesses' desire for less regulation?

  Jim Knight: That is an ongoing tension, is it not? Network Rail have got two regulators because they are one of the four employers that are now accredited as an awarding body, so they have also got Ofqual as a regulator of them as an awarding body as well as Ofsted regulating their provision. That is something Ofsted are currently looking at at the moment in terms of whether or not we need to move more as a proportionate risk-based response to inspection so, where a provider, be it Network Rail or anybody else, demonstrates consistently that they are delivering quality, then perhaps there is a need to inspect them less frequently and that is something which Ofsted is working on at the moment.

  Q182  Chairman: Could I lead you on to another area where hopefully you will put something on the face of the Bill and this is to do with diversity. There is a 40% pay differential between male and female apprentices according to the 2005 apprenticeship pay survey. Seventy per cent of advanced apprenticeships are male and, indeed, black and minority ethnic groups are grossly under-represented at all levels of apprenticeships. That is your information coming from the Government, Lord Young. Where on the face of the Bill is there any encouragement that there is going to be a direct approach to addressing these diversity issues?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: I hate to disappoint you again, Chairman, not on the face of the Bill because we do not believe that this Bill is the right vehicle to do it. Apprentices are employees and their employment relationship is governed by employment and equalities legislation, so there is a single equalities bill to consolidate, harmonise and extend existing discrimination law. That was a manifesto commitment and that Bill is planned to be introduced into Parliament in the next session. I want to address the point you made, because it is a really serious point about the problem. There is a series of initiatives, of which the National Apprenticeship Service will play a key part, to encourage learners to consider atypical career choices when applying for apprenticeships. So what does this include? Advice in schools, because that is often where the first barrier is, people see their career choices in a very stereotypical way, so if it is hairdressing and beauty, you know that course is going to be packed out in the main by young women and, similarly, on engineering you might see the obverse. We need to ensure that the advice in schools is appropriate, that we do something to combat the stereotype. There will be a mentoring system for apprentices in situations in which they might feel isolated due to differences in gender, ethnic background or disability and the Learning and Skills Council are developing a series of critical mass pilots across the country to increase atypical and under-represented learners on apprenticeships. These pilots will facilitate collaboration between employers and the third sector to support atypical and under-represented learners. Then the expansion of the apprenticeship programme to over 25s has already had a positive impact on diversity, greater representation of females and black and minority ethnic groups in over 25s apprenticeships, so a number of activities that we will undertake but nothing on the face of the Bill.

  Q183  Chairman: There will be no requirements at all, there will be no requirements on the Inspection Service to inspect against diversity issues? Jim, will there or will there not?

  Jim Knight: As Lord Young said, there will be measures in the Single Equalities Bill, that is the more appropriate legislative vehicle for this particular area. You can look forward to us being able to listen carefully to what your Committee has said and reflect on it and then see how we can reflect that in the Single Equalities Bill rather than through this piece of legislation. I would reinforce what Lord Young said in respect of careers education, that is something we are improving in guidance to schools. One of the other strengths of having a National Apprenticeship Service and having the rigour and the substance of the NAS will be trying to chase after some of the geographical imbalances in apprenticeship take-up. Simply by addressing the issue of low take-up in the London area, you would have to then be addressing some of the diversity issues which you talked about in terms of BME,[16] for example.

  Chairman: I think we would both agree this is an important issue.

  Q184  Mr Boswell: Another important issue is the employment rights of apprentices. The Flett v Matheson case established the principle that where an employer does not wish to continue to provide an apprenticeship, there should be an obligation on that employer to try to find an alternative placement. I have to say, this is exactly what has happened to a constituent who has been in correspondence with me about this, for example. Why does the draft Bill not enshrine that principle in statute form?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: Again, I think we share a common goal of trying to maximise the number of apprenticeships. If we made it into a contract of apprenticeship, I think the legal obligations of that would undermine the primary goal, so we have tried to strike a balance here on giving an apprentice normal employment rights. Can we guarantee that if an employer in the final stages decides not to go ahead, that they will find an alternative place? I do not think we could. I hope we will be creating a climate with something like the Vacancy Matching Service, all the services of the National Apprenticeship Service, that we could do something to deal with those problems. It is about a balance on employment rights.

  Q185  Mr Boswell: Following on from that, I think we would all agree, not only on the objective of increasing the apprentices but as far as possible trying to keep the law out of these circumstances unless it is essential. My understanding is you have suggested as Government that if there is dissatisfaction with the training an apprentice is receiving, this should be referred to an employment tribunal. I do realise that employment tribunals have a preliminary mediation function, you cannot just take it to the final resolution without an intermediate stage, but is there a case for getting the National Apprenticeship Service instead, for example, to take on that and attempt to sort this out?

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: My instant reaction is if we had not covered a scenario where somebody is dissatisfied and the only recourse is to go to law, there is something wrong. There ought to be something in the National Apprenticeship Service or somewhere which enables somebody who has got a genuine grievance about the quality of training that they are receiving to resolve it without going to law.

  Q186  Mr Boswell: My next question was going to be what about having an Ombudsman, for example?

  Jim Knight: We want the NAS to be quite a focused organisation, quite a focused service within the SFA.[17] There are all sorts of reasons why it has been designed the way it has, but we want to put that expertise in employer engagement into one place. To have a tribunal service which sits within that is slightly awkward in terms of its focus. There is some quite complicated legal advice and discussion that I have been trying to keep up with in terms of the common law status of an apprenticeship contract. I am completely persuaded that moving the definition of the contracts we are talking about as service contracts, as the draft Bill does, so you have got the flexibility of employment contracts, you have then got the use of things like the employment tribunals, seems a very sensible way of keeping the NAS focused and keeping the contracts we are talking about relatively flexible.

  Q187 Mr Boswell: Can we go back to the point—Lord Young almost floated it for me—about some redress procedure. There is some degree of inequality in the relationship between an apprentice and their employer, possibly on the scale, legal firepower, access to legal advice and all the rest of it, have you considered setting up some kind of apprenticeship Ombudsman or at least some vehicle through which individual apprentices can raise their concerns and grievances and obtain advice?

  Jim Knight: I think we would always reflect on what people like yourselves would tell us about the need for such a service, then whether or not you would fashion such a service or whether you would look across the landscape at what is already there and whether or not there is something else that you could use would then follow.

  Q188  Mr Boswell: I take it there is a sort of acknowledgment of the issue without necessarily having resolved the final outcome.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: I do and, without getting into perhaps the panoply of an Ombudsman or whatever, I am told that the NAS will address initial complaints but it is not going to be on the face of the Bill. All I was reflecting was in my experience, even before somebody goes to an employment tribunal, which although in theory is designed to be less legal than a court, in fact if you have experienced them you will know that is not the case. Personally, I was keen to see what would a young apprentice or, indeed, any apprentice do if they felt, hang on, this is not what it said on the tin when I signed up, there ought to be a means of trying to resolve it without going to any form of law. It looks like we have got some ideas and we need to take what you said into account.

  Q189  Dr Iddon: I apologise for missing the bulk of the Committee, I am afraid I was on a three line whip in another Committee.

  Jim Knight: I am sure it was a fascinating statutory instrument!

  Q190  Dr Iddon: Yes, it was! Out of the Learning and Skills Council, which has taken a long time to settle down but I feel it has settled down now, we have another bureaucratic upheaval and out of that will come the National Apprenticeship Scheme. Why are we going through another major bureaucratic upheaval to reorganise the structures?

  Jim Knight: I think the root of this lies with the decision that was made prior to the Machinery of Government change to raise the participation age to 18. In essence, and to cut a very long set of discussions short, once you have made that decision, then you are saying to local authorities, "You've got duties and responsibilities to ensure that every young person right up until the age of 18 has got a proper range of provision to meet their needs and their personal circumstances". Once you have given local authorities those duties, then it makes sense to transfer the commissioning of those post-16 education services to local authorities. Hence, you are taking away the majority of the funding then from the Learning and Skills Council and you are left with something else. That is then an opportunity to look at whether having made that decision you are going to have that break at 18 rather than at 16, which would then be reflected in the machinery of government change to say, "Are there things about what is left of the LSC's function, having taken away post-16 learning, that you would configure slightly differently?" and the answer was "Yes", hence the formation of the SFA and then within that the NAS.

  Q191  Dr Iddon: Jim, the Committee has the current 2008 March costs of running the LSC and the manpower numbers here. Have you calculated the cost of running the NAS and the manpower required for that, and will it be more or less than the present structure?

  Jim Knight: Stephen may have some of the detail, but clearly when we bring this into legislative effect, we will have to produce an impact assessment which will set that out in some detail in respect of the SFA, the YPLA[18] and then how that works in respect of the NAS. Stephen, do you want to come in here?

  Mr Marston: In World-class Apprenticeships we were very clear that the NAS would be a bigger, better service than we have now. It will need more staff. Very broadly, we are talking about a growth from about 250 now to about 400 in future for the National Apprenticeship Service. Yes, that part, the service that runs the apprenticeships programme, will be bigger than the resource we have now, but it will be sitting within the Skills Funding Agency. As Jim said, we are working through how the known budget and headcount for the LSC is best distributed between the Skills Funding Agency, including NAS, Young People's Learning Authority and the 150 local authorities, that is still discussion going on.

  Q192  Dr Iddon: Will the NAS have a regional structure, in other words, will it be dealing with employers at a local level? Will it also be responsible for the quality of apprenticeships?

  Jim Knight: It will certainly need to be able to relate to employers at the appropriate level. It will need to be able to relate to employers nationally because there are some, Rolls Royce, BT, those sorts of national employers, where it is most appropriate to have that relationship at that level, but equally at a regional and local level, working with local education-business partnerships, but working in its own right and working with skills brokers trying, as far as possible, for employers to have a single conversation is the aspiration. The skills broker brokers the needs of the employer and promotes certain things to them and then can bring in expertise from the NAS and bring in Train to Gain, the various things that we would be offering employers.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: If the initial contact is with the skills broker, once they identify that what the employer needs is advice on apprenticeships, then it will be a straight reference to the NAS and they will then handle the requirements.

  Q193  Dr Iddon: Measuring the quality will be whose responsibility?

  Jim Knight: With Rob's questions we discussed how you have got the role of Ofsted's inspection, but obviously NAS have the responsibilities in respect of both the standard and the certification and then the Sector Skills Council for the framework.

  Mr Marston: The NAS themselves will not be inspecting or reviewing quality, what we will have through a development called Framework for Excellence is published information about quality standards, success rates for all providers and Ofsted reviewing the quality of the training programmes.

  Q194  Dr Iddon: Are you expecting the NAS to collect a whole spectrum of statistics which will justify the new system being better than the present system in terms of various things like training quality, improving take-up, progression of apprentices through the different schemes and things like that?

  Jim Knight: Undoubtedly there will be a reasonable amount of data collection within the context of our commitments in the Local Government White Paper and so on. My guess is that in the end what people will look at is the trajectory which was set out, culminating in the 2020 vision of one in five young people in an apprenticeship.

  Lord Young of Norwood Green: We are currently measuring, are we not, starts and completions which is in the report and we know they are significantly improving. Completions have gone up from something like 23% to 63% over a relatively short period of time[19]. We know what the targets are and if we are reaching those targets in relation to completions, I think we are doing well. In terms of the quality, what there will be is more rigorous blueprint, so those frameworks have to conform to the more rigorous blueprint. We hope for a better quality apprenticeship and, at the same time, more successful in terms of the number of young people or mature adult apprentices carrying on to complete their apprenticeships.

  Q195 Chairman: Can I say first of all to both you, Lord Young, and to Jim Knight, MP, there are a number of questions we have not been able to ask, will you be happy for us to write to you with those so we can get some brief response?

  Jim Knight: Of course.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much indeed, Lord Young, Jim Knight and Stephen Marston for your presence before the Committee. We have enjoyed looking at this draft Apprenticeship Bill. I think it is a good process. We thank you very much indeed for your time.

16   Black and minority ethnic Back

17   Skills Funding Agency Back

18   Young People's Learning Agency Back

19   Note from the witness: "24% rather than 23%" Back

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