Apprenticeships Contents


Trailblazer programme

70.In 2013 the previous Coalition Government announced plans to replace the existing system of frameworks with new apprenticeship standards developed by self-selecting groups of employers called Trailblazers.149 These groups must comprise a wide range of employers (at least 10), of which in most cases at least two should employ fewer than 50 people. While sector, trade and professional bodies can be involved in the process they are not permitted to lead.150 Under the outgoing system, sector skills councils—employer-led organisations covering specific industries—were responsible for devolving frameworks and acted as issuing authorities for their sector.

71.The replacement process was originally due to finish in time for the 2017/18 academic year, but this was relaxed in December 2015 to “envision a migration from apprenticeship frameworks to standards over the course of the Parliament, with as much of this to take place by 2017/18 as possible”.151 Over 1,400 employers had taken part in the programme from across the economy, forming over 215 groups and developing over 490 new standards, with 157 of these now approved for delivery.152 However, the number of starts on the new standards remains small: 4,300 in 2015/16, up from 400 in 2014/15.153

72.We heard from many employers who had taken up the Government’s offer and devoted significant time and effort to developing apprenticeship standards that better met their needs.154 We were particularly impressed by the greater emphasis many Trailblazer groups have placed on developing higher level standards, a weakness of the previous system.155

73.However little of this support was unqualified. As we heard in Chapter 2, small businesses have not always found it easy to engage in the time-consuming process of developing standards, a problem that some suggested had worsened following the withdrawal of Government funding previously available under the Employer Ownership Pilot.156 The London Borough of Camden said that this lack of input from smaller businesses had “led to a bias towards highly specialised standards for very specific roles”.157 Other witnesses expressed concern that such standards would not be broad enough to prepare apprentices to work and progress across an entire sector.158

74.Professor Alison Fuller, Professor of Vocational Education and Work at the University College London Institute of Education, was one of a number of witnesses to suggest that

there has been a snowballing of standards [ … ] that [ … ] is working against some of the original rationale for bringing them in, which was about trying to associate one standard with one occupation.159

It is currently possible to pursue 4,661 Ofqual regulated qualifications in 597 pathways via the outgoing system. This follows the withdrawal of 40% of previously available frameworks.160 The Minister, Mr Halfon, told us that these had “over the years been like a spaghetti junction for employers” and that the new system would be much easier to navigate.161 Some witnesses suggested that the proliferation of new standards—there could eventually be up to 1,500—may do little to reduce this confusion for employers and learners.162

75.We also heard frustration with the process by which new standards were approved, with witnesses reporting frequent delays and changing guidance from the bodies responsible: the Government’s Apprenticeships Directorate and the SFA.163 In a recent report, the National Audit Office found that average development time is nearly a year, although we heard that this is decreasing.164 In January 2017, in response to a written question, the Minister said that over the previous year 60% of proposals for new standards had been rejected.165

76.From April 2017 the Institute will take over standards approval functions. Its draft operational plan suggests that many of the concerns raised with us have been recognised and we welcome many of its provisions.166 These include far greater oversight of the standards development process—to avoid the proliferation of overlapping standards—and a number of improvements to the support available to Trailblazer groups. For example, relationship managers will be encouraged to become specialists in certain sectors and far more assessment expertise will be available.167 There will also be an attempt to speed up the development process by making it more flexible and responsive to the needs of employers.168 Standards will be reviewed by independent third parties with one key criteria being how applicable they are to employers not part of the Trailblazer group.169

77.The Trailblazer programme has done much to increase employer engagement with the apprenticeship programme, and refocus it on higher level skills. Yet it has often appeared somewhat haphazard, with no clear picture of how a final system would look and confusion between Trailblazer groups and standards approvers. We welcome the Institute’s intention to bring far greater structure and coherence to the process.


78.The Government asserts that new standards will

act as the ‘shop window’ for the apprenticeship, setting out in simple terms the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed for an apprentice to be competent and capable in their role.170

It contrasts this with the outgoing system of frameworks, many of which it suggests are “overly prescriptive, complex and long” and fail to meet the needs of employers.171 New standards are required to set out clearly and concisely the full requirements of an occupation so that on completion an apprentice should be able to work for an employer of any size within the sector.172 They must also be “sufficiently stretching” to require at least a year of training (with 20% off-the-job), contain minimum English and maths requirements and align with professional registration where this exists.173

79.Opinion was divided on the merits of the new standards. Balfour Beatty amongst others was supportive, praising their “rigour, quality” and “simplicity”, but others were less complimentary.174 Ofsted suggested there was “a risk of inconsistent application [ … ] with some standards including qualifications and some others not”.175 A recent Policy Exchange report stated that while some are world class,

too many of the new apprenticeship standards which have been designed, approved, funded and are being undertaken do not stand comparison to the best ones in the UK, or reflect an Apprenticeship by international definition.176

In particular it drew attention to standards it claimed were insufficiently stretching and failed to prepare the apprentice for a new job or role.

80.Some witnesses questioned whether new standards were sufficiently detailed to ensure consistency and comparability between training undertaken in different locations and by different providers.177 NOCN, an awarding organisation, suggested that this problem could be eased if standards included a detailed training plan.178 It is currently the responsibility of the individual employer and training provider to develop a bespoke training plan.179

81.Requiring Trailblazer groups to devise a detailed training plan would further complicate the development process and run counter to the Government’s aim of simplifying standards. However, we are concerned that lack of clear information about how training could be delivered may result in inconsistent delivery. It seems a wasted opportunity that the knowledge of employers who have invested so much time in developing a standard should not be shared further with others, especially employers new to the scheme who may have little experience of how apprenticeships work. A compromise would be for standards to include some basic information about how the skills, knowledge and behaviours required could be gained.

82.Standards created under the Trailblazer programme have been of uneven quality. We welcome the Institute’s proposals to bring greater oversight and expertise to the approvals process.

83.While standards are intended to be much simpler than previous frameworks, there is a balance to be struck between giving individual employers freedom to specify the training they want, and guidance about how this training could be given. Different sectors and industries should be allowed the freedom to tailor training to meet their different requirements.

84.We recommend that new standards should include greater detail about how training could be delivered, although there should be no obligation for employers to follow this advice.


85.Achievement of a standard is dependent on passing an end-point assessment rather than rather than a series of small assessments over the course of the apprenticeship, as is the case under the outgoing system of frameworks.180 To facilitate this Trailblazer groups must produce an assessment plan which outlines what will be assessed, the methods that will be used, who will carry out the assessment, and internal and external quality assurance arrangements.181

86.A number of awarding organisations suggested that the Government had not done enough to encourage Trailblazer groups to use their expertise, which had led to some assessment plans including unreliable modes of assessment.182 The Federation of Awarding Bodies said that the behaviour component of apprenticeship standards would prove difficult to assess and was too open to interpretation.183

87.The Institute’s draft operational plan suggests that some of these concerns have been recognised. The document states that

while employers are best placed to set out the knowledge, skills and behaviours required for their occupation, feedback from Trailblazers indicates that they do not always have the expertise to design a robust assessment plan to sit alongside it.184

To remedy this it proposes to offer far greater assessment support, particularly to Trailblazer groups producing their first standard.185

88.The Trailblazer system has not made a clear enough distinction between the role of the employer—defining the skills, knowledge and behaviours an apprentice must acquire and demonstrate—and the role of assessment professionals—designing the means by which this is evaluated. We welcome the Institute’s proposals to clarify these roles.

89.End-point assessments are conducted by an independent organisation selected by the employer from an SFA-managed Register of Apprentice Assessment Organisations.186 As Sally Collier, Ofqual Chief Regulator, explained, because an apprenticeship standard “is not a qualification, per se”, there is no requirement for these organisations to be regulated by Ofqual.187 Peter Lauener, Shadow Chief Executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships, told us that the system allows for “a bit of horses for courses” in that awarding bodies can offer assessment in areas of particular expertise.188

90.Membership of this register is decided on a standard by standard basis on the basis of competence in, and experience of, the subject area, capability and capacity to deliver the assessment, and the robustness of internal quality assurance procedures.189 The assessment organisation is then responsible for developing the content of each end-point assessment—for example: “test questions, project topics or interview scripts”—based on basis of the standard’s assessment plan.190

91.A subject of ongoing controversy during our inquiry was the number of standards that lacked an approved organisation to carry out their end-point assessment. This has led to some apprentices beginning their training without assessment in place for their standard, something which the AELP criticised strongly.191 According to an FE Week analysis of apprenticeship starts up the end of October 2016, 18% of those undertaking standards-based apprenticeships were in this position.192 Overall around half of standards still lacked an approved assessor. Mr Lauener told us that the SFA had been forced to reject many initial applications as inadequate, although he said that progress was now being made.193 The Minister told us the he was “pretty sure” that no apprentice would reach the end of their training without there being an approved assessment organisation in place for their standard.194

92.Apprentices should not have been allowed to begin their training without an assessment organisation in place and a clear idea of how their success will be measured.

93.We recommend that standards should have at least one approved assessment organisation in place before they can be delivered.

94.Professor Wolf was strongly in favour of the new system which she said would provide greater coherence to an apprenticeship and was “characteristic of [ … ] the German or the Danish systems”.195 However we found end-point assessment to be one of the more contested aspects of the Government’s reforms. We were told by some witnesses that the new system could prove expensive for both employers and assessment providers.196 Others were concerned that the lack of intermediate assessments would make it difficult for apprentices to continue an interrupted apprenticeship with a different employer.197

95.Ofsted was one of a number of witnesses to question whether sufficient measures had been put in place to ensure the consistency, quality and comparability of assessment.198 Others emphasised the importance of strong oversight given that funding is linked to passing the assessment and employers are free to choose their assessment organisations.199 The AoC said that “there is a strong reliance on the general altruism of employers”.200 In response to such concerns, David Hill, Director of Apprenticeships for the Department for Education, expressed confidence that employers “will want to know that they are buying a rigorous assessment”.201

96.End-point assessments are required to be quality assured both internally, by the assessment organisation itself, and externally by a body specified in the standard’s assessment plan.202 David Hill told us that this “could be the Institute or it could be Ofqual or it could be another professional or employer body”.203 An assessment committee made up of senior Institute officials will investigate any concerns raised by external quality assurance.204 In extreme cases it can recommend assessment organisations be removed from the register.

97.However concerns remained about the effectiveness of external quality assurance. In a recent article, Graham Hastings-Evans, Managing Director of the awarding organisation NOCN, warned that different bodies could put in place very different regulatory structures “potentially resulting in harder regimes in some sectors and easier regimes in others”.205 He said that this could increase the regulatory burden on assessment organisations and training providers, and reduce public confidence in the value of some apprenticeships. In February 2017, Stephen Wright, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said that the challenges of running a quality assurance system were being underestimated and expressed concern that some employer groups may seek to use the system to raise revenue.206 Both Mr Hastings-Evans and Mr Wright suggested there should be a far larger role for Ofqual, the body with the experience of, and statuary responsibility for, regulating qualifications and assessments.

98.We are minded to agree that the structure the Government has created is unnecessarily complex and fragmented. The role of external quality assurance should be to ensure assessments are consistent and reliable, which requires understanding and expertise of what makes a good assessment, the sort of expertise that Sally Collier, Ofqual Chief Regulator, told us was “very rare”.207 Managing such a diverse system of quality assurance providers also seems an unnecessary burden to place on the Institute when it already has many tasks. Instead we would suggest that Ofqual, a body that already provides quality assurance for a number of end-point assessments, is wholly tasked with the role. While this would create complications—not all assessment organisations are currently recognised as awarding bodies by Ofqual—this problem does not seem insurmountable.208

99.The integrity of the apprenticeships undertaken under new standards depends on the consistency and reliability of end-point assessment. We are unconvinced that the Government’s current model of external quality assurance will achieve this.

100.We recommend that Ofqual should be given responsibility for the external quality assurance of all end-point assessments.

151 BIS, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Guidance for Developers of Apprenticeship Standards and related Assessment Plans, October 2014, para 3, HM Government, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Guidance for Trailblazers, December 2015, para 175.

152 DfE, Institute for Apprenticeships: Draft Operational Plan, February 2017, Executive Summary

154 Airbus UK (APP 65) para 15

155 University Vocational Awards Council (APP 43) para 3

156 Creative Skillset (APP175) paras 40–42

157 London Borough of Camden (APP 121) para 4.2

158 AoC, (APP 115) para 31, Unite (APP 90) para 3

159 Q23

160 DfE, Institute for Apprenticeships: Draft Operational Plan, February 2017, Executive Summary, para 2.2

161 Q278

162 Q88, Pearson Education (APP 71) para 1.3

163 Q185, BT (APP 178) para 12, HM Government, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Guidance for Trailblazers, December 2015, para 45

164 NAO, Delivering value through the apprenticeships programme, HC 624, September 2016, p 9, Q269

165 HC Deb, 16 January 2017, col 57579W

167 As above, para 2.4.2

168 As above

169 As above, para 3.1.3.

170 HM Government, English Apprenticeships: Our 2020 Vision, December 2015, para 2.6.

171 As above, para 2.6, Q254

173 As above

174 Balfour Beatty (APP 67) para 24

175 Ofsted (APP 54) para 34

176 Policy Exchange, The Skills We Need, And Why We Don’t Have Them, November 2016, p 7

177 Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (APP 76) para 18

178 NOCN (APP 21) para 3.22

181 HM Government, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Guidance for Trailblazers, December 2015, para 94, Annex 8

182 Pearson Education (APP 71) para 7.2, NCFE (APP 7) para 19

183 Federation of Awarding Bodies (APP 79) paras 17–18

185 As above

187 Q216

188 Q219

190 As above, para 14

193 Q251

194 Q281

195 Q26

196 See, for example, Q162, Science, Engineering, Manufacturing and Technologies Alliance (APP 43) para 32

197 EAL (APP 88) para 20

198 Q250

199 Q250, Ofqual (APP 172) para 9, Open University (APP 23) para 30

200 AoC (APP 115) para 6

201 Q284

202 HM Government, The Future of Apprenticeships in England: Guidance for Trailblazers, December 2015, paras 144–46

203 Q281. For Ofqual to provide quality assurance the assessment organisation must meet its General Conditions of Recognition, June 2016.

205We need a proper framework for apprenticeships”, FE Week, February 2017

207 Q236

208 “At the time of writing, 52% (23 of 44) of the assessment organisations on the Register of Apprenticeship Assessment Organisations are Ofqual recognised”. Ofqual, Response to Institute for Apprenticeships’ Operational Plan, February 2017, para 17

30 March 2017