Apprenticeships and traineeships for 16 to 19 year olds - Education Contents

5  Reform of apprenticeship standards


74. The Government announced in October 2013 that, following the principles of employer ownership set out in the Richard Review, new apprenticeship standards would be developed by employers.[93] Employers were invited by Government to come together in sector-based groups called Trailblazers to develop new apprenticeship standards in their area. The most recent guidance for the third phase of Trailblazers summarises the progress of the scheme so far:

·  Phase 1 of the Trailblazers began in October 2013 in eight sectors. They initially produced eleven apprenticeship standards in March 2014, and related assessment plans have since been approved for most of these. The first apprentices started training towards some Phase 1 standards in September 2014.

·  Phase 2 of the Trailblazers began in March 2014 in 29 more sectors. The first approved standards to be produced by this group were published in August 2014. They are now working towards submitting their assessment plans in early 2015.

·  Phase 3 of the Trailblazers was announced in October 2014 covering 37 sectors, involving the development of more than 75 standards.[94]

The Government's intention is that all apprenticeships starting from the 2017/18 academic year should be under the new standards.[95]


75. Submissions to our inquiry suggested that larger firms have dominated the Trailblazer process. For example, the Federation for Industry Sector Skills and Standards commented that:

    Despite the involvement of some micro and small businesses a greater effort needs to be made to place them centrally at the heart of standard and assessment development. Large businesses have dominated the development of many of the new standards.[96]

76. This may in part be due to the time commitment involved. The Association of Accounting Technicians reported that their representative had had to attend half-day meetings weekly over a two month period, which they describe as "simply not practical for someone in a small accountancy firm".[97]

77. Some respondents questioned whether Trailblazers met the needs of all employers or just those involved in Trailblazers. JTL told us that:

    [Trailblazers] are relatively small groups of employers with little true SME representation given that the majority of apprenticeship employers in the [Building Services Engineering] sector are SMEs and often even micro businesses. This raises the question will these standards meet the needs of the whole sector?[98]


78. Ian Taylor, CEO of SkillsActive, told us about employers' experiences of the Trailblazer process:

    We are very employer-led and, through our Trailblazer, we engaged with 323 employers. Unfortunately, the process managed to disenfranchise and disenchant them […] because there was a constant change of direction. The guidelines that were issued were then changed and they were told that funding was not part of the Trailblazer process, but then it was introduced halfway through. We had employers walking away and saying, "We won't be bothered with this."[99]

We also heard from David Harbourne of the Edge Foundation that some employers did not want more involvement than they already had in setting standards—many employers felt that the current system met their needs.[100]

79. Tony Moloney, Head of Education and Skills at National Grid, had a more positive perspective:

    We found that it was very powerful to come together under the industrial partnership for energy, and that it was enabling to bring together 20-odd employers. We didn't just pick the big asset owners, such as ourselves; we got the supply chain involved in determining a standard.[101]

Ownership of standards post-Trailblazers

80. The Trailblazer programme is intended to conclude in 2017.[102] We heard concerns about what would happen to the new apprenticeship standards once the scheme had concluded, and about who would ensure that standards remained relevant to employers. Brian Wisdom, Chair of the Federation for Industry Sector Skills and Standards, summarised the issues:

    In two years' time, when the Trailblazer groups have disbanded […] if there is no industrial partnership structure that covers the breadth of training that needs to happen, how does it continue? Who does an employer go to when they have a question about the standards? Who does an employer go to when there has been a change in legislation that requires a resetting of the standards, which will happen, or when international events have changed things? This area is still completely undeveloped, and I think it is really important that there is a self-sustaining way of making sure that the quality and standards can be maintained.[103]

81. Addressing this point, the Minister told us:

    You brought together a group of employers to help to create a standard, and you obviously hope that they will feel invested and that if they continue to be active in that industry that they will continue to have a role in it. But you cannot presume that. It may be with some people that the management changes or the business focus will change, and that they will slip away. That is why we in Government will always have a pretty active role, ensuring that every Trailblazer, as it were, has a sort of owner—not an individual company owner, but a group in the industry that will take responsibility for it.

    However, it is absolutely right that there may well be some industries where, as it were, the collective organisation is not quite so clearly defined, perhaps does not last and maybe some people will fall away. Then, we have a responsibility as a Government either to reform that or to check ourselves that those standards are maintained and updated. So there will never not be a role for Government.[104]

Following the session, the Minister wrote to the Committee with further details about how the oversight of standards might operate:

    We are currently reviewing the operation of the [Ministerial Advisory Panel on Apprenticeships] and the role it may or may not play in a steady state system. As we develop the Trailblazer process, there are a number of employer led models of governance which are currently being designed. We are keen to support their development in order to inform thinking about wider governance within a steady state system. Once they have entered into trial we will then make a more informed decision on the way forward for the future governance of apprenticeships.[105]

Ensuring quality in new apprenticeship standards

82. The evidence is unclear on whether increased employer ownership is enough to guarantee quality in the new apprenticeship standards. The Government has undoubtedly made improvements to quality through the removal of programme-led apprenticeships and frameworks lasting less than 12 months,[106] but we have seen little direct evidence that the standards developed by the Trailblazers will be inherently of better quality than those they are replacing. The Government has argued that because employers are involved in the design of apprenticeship standards, businesses will therefore have greater confidence that apprenticeships will provide for their needs.[107] While this may be the case, it does not necessarily follow that the new standards will be any better than those they are replacing.

83. According to the Government's own figures, there have only been around 300 apprenticeship starts on the Trailblazer-developed standards since September 2014.[108] It is therefore too early to judge from the experiences of employers and apprentices whether or not the new apprenticeship standards represent an improvement in quality.

84. In evidence, the Minister outlined the process for accrediting the new standards:

    I will not sign off a Trailblazer standard for use out there and for Government funding unless it has an assessment that has been signed off by the panel that advises me as being rigorous and independent. That assessment has to check whether the apprentice has got from their apprenticeship what the taxpayer has a right to expect for their money.[109]

While this suggests that there is sufficient oversight of the assessments through which apprentices complete an apprenticeship, it does not provide a method of assessing the quality of apprenticeship provision more generally across different standards. It also raises questions over whether any one panel, however talented and industrious its members, is capable of properly evaluating standards assessments from so many sectors.

Proliferation of apprenticeship standards

85. Brian Wisdom, Chair of the Federation of Industry Sector Skills and Standards, told us that the number of new standards is growing rapidly:

    The numbers that have been developed so far indicate that there is going to be a significant proliferation of standards and of groups setting those standards. Within that lie some potential pitfalls, because of the need to ensure consistent quality across the piece and to ensure that, fundamentally, those standards can be maintained over a long period, given that we want apprenticeships to last in perpetuity and not for two years, or as the servant of political dogma, because we are talking about industry's future and that has to be long term.

    There is some real cause for making sure that we have in place the governance and system that can support a proliferation of standards if there needs to be a proliferation of standards, to provide the opportunities and the quality that people need, or not. Either way, I do not think that there is a system in place for the future.[110]

He suggested that ultimately there might be around 1,500 different standards.[111] This may be a desirable outcome, but as the Minister said to us:

    We must not end up designing things of such specificity that either they give people skills that are not really transferable, or they relate to jobs that may not exist in four years' time.[112]

86. In supplementary evidence the Minister suggested that in October 2015 he would "expect to be in a position to make a judgement about where there are sufficient standards to meet the needs of employers in different sectors and whether there are gaps where we may need to stimulate employers to come forward".[113] This does not address the risk that there may be too many standards, resulting in overly specific frameworks that do not build transferrable skills.

Maths and English requirements

87. At the moment, apprentices on a level 2 apprenticeship must achieve level 1[114] in English and maths in order to complete an apprenticeship. This can be done either via GCSEs or a functional skills assessment. Apprentices on apprenticeships under the new Trailblazer standards must study towards level 2 (GCSE A*-C or equivalent) and take the test before completing their apprenticeship.[115] As part of the Government's reforms to apprenticeship standards, the DfE is promoting the use of GCSEs to meet the English and maths requirements in new apprenticeships.[116]

88. In their written submission, SkillsActive expressed concerns about the use of the revised GCSE for apprentices:

    Many school and college leavers aged 16 and 17 entering apprenticeships have poor English and Maths skills. SkillsActive supports the decision to set level 1 English and maths as the entry requirement for Level 2 apprenticeships and level 2 English and Maths for Level 3 apprenticeships.

    We do not believe, however, that the revised GCSE is the appropriate programme because there is insufficient emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy. Functional skills are well established with employers and should remain available to improve numeracy and literacy standards of apprentices.[117]

Kate Stock, CEO of Smart Training, agreed that the current functional skills assessment was more appropriate for assessing English and maths capability. She argued that English and maths qualifications needed to be relevant to the vocational occupation being studied:

    The functional skills that we have are good. They are challenging. They were only fully integrated into apprenticeships a couple of years ago. I think you will find that, across the board, all apprenticeship providers are still struggling to implement functional skills properly. Where they do not work is where there is no relevance to the vocation, which is created by the apprenticeship framework.[118]

89. The Minister argued that employer recognition of the GCSE brand meant that anyone who might be able to achieve grade C at GCSE in English and maths should be given an opportunity to do so.[119] This is a worthwhile aim, but others argued that if the new GCSEs were viewed as more academic—Sally Hunt said that English was "actively focusing more on traditional literature"[120]—there was a risk that people who would benefit from more practical applied learning would lose out. As Brian Wisdom, Chair of the FISSS, told us, "if you are motivated by catering, actually calculating the ingredients for a dish is as efficient a way of learning maths as the traditional way".[121]

90. The Minister announced in November that the Education and Training Foundation would be reviewing English and maths qualifications to ensure they were meaningful for employers. UKCES summarised the aims of the review in a press release:

    The review will work with employers to consider the best ways to achieve and accredit maths and English skills in ways that employers recognise and respect.[122]

Conclusions and recommendations

91. The level of employer involvement in the Trailblazer scheme shows that there is an appetite for greater ownership of standards among many employers.

92. Increased employer ownership of apprenticeship standards is a worthwhile goal, but the Trailblazer process is at risk of being dominated by larger companies at the expense of SMEs. The success of the scheme will rest on whether wider industry sectors have confidence in the standards the Trailblazers have developed.

93. We recommend that the Government review, and come forward with proposals to strengthen, the involvement of SMEs in the Trailblazer scheme, accepting that most will be unable to give as much time as larger employers.

94. While it is clear that the Government is aware of the issue of ownership of standards in the post-Trailblazer environment, more work is needed to ensure that employers and providers can have confidence that apprenticeship standards will be reviewed and maintained once the Trailblazer scheme has concluded.

95. We recommend that the Government set out its expectations about what will happen following the conclusion of the Trailblazer scheme. This should cover ongoing ownership of new apprenticeship standards, how new standards will be developed or existing standards revised in response to future needs, and who will provide oversight and leadership of these processes. Provision for a meaningful involvement from SMEs in the post-Trailblazer environment should form part of these expectations.

96. We recommend that the Government set out how it intends to evaluate the success of the Trailblazer programme in the longer term, particularly identifying how the quality of new standards should be judged.

97. The Education and Training Foundation's review of English and maths qualifications may propose a solution to the problem of setting appropriate requirements for apprentices who have not achieved Grade C at GCSE in maths and English which suits both apprentices and employers. In the meantime apprentices should be allowed to take a functional skills qualification, rather than being pushed to take GCSEs which may deter perfectly able candidates from becoming apprentices.

98. We recommend that the Trailblazers be allowed to choose which level 2 qualification in English and maths is required to be studied as part of their apprenticeships. The Government should encourage Trailblazers to work with the Education and Training Foundation project looking at English and maths qualifications.

93   BIS, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Implementation Plan, October 2013, p.23 Back

94   BIS, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Guidance for Developers of Apprenticeship Standards and related Assessment Plans, October 2014, paragraph 3 Back

95   BIS, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Guidance for Developers of Apprenticeship Standards and related Assessment Plans, October 2014, paragraph 3 Back

96   Federation for Industry Sector Skills and Standards () p.3 Back

97   Association of Accounting Technicians () para 22 Back

98   JTL () para 14 Back

99   Q338 Back

100   Q108 [David Harbourne] Back

101   Q351 Back

102   BIS, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Guidance for Developers of Apprenticeship Standards and related Assessment Plans, October 2014, paragraph 3 Back

103   Q373 [Brian Wisdom] Back

104   Q432 Back

105   DfE () p.2 Back

106   DfE () para 1.11 Back

107   Ibid., para 3.9 Back

108   "More than 700 employers to design top quality apprenticeships", BIS Press Release, 23 October 2014 Back

109   Q429 Back

110   Q379 Back

111   Q350 Back

112   Q423 Back

113   DfE (AAT0115) p.1 Back

114   GCSE grades D-G or equivalent. Back

115   BIS, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Implementation Plan, October 2013, pp.13-14 Back

116   Ibid. Back

117   SkillsActive (AAT0036) paras 31-32 Back

118   Q366 Back

119   Q465 Back

120   Q299 Back

121   Q365 [Brian Wisdom] Back

122   "UKCES welcomes employer involvement in review of maths and English qualifications", UKCES press release, 19 November 2014 Back

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Prepared 9 March 2015