Institute for Apprenticeships: an important opportunity for employers to shape its role

14 Feb 2017

With draft strategic guidance published for employers to study and influence, David Way, Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester, looks at the potential impact the IfA could have on the system. David has a wealth of experience of apprenticeships. As former CEO of the National Apprenticeship Service, he saw every aspect of apprenticeship success and the challenges that lay ahead.

He is editor of A Race to the Top – achieving three million more Apprenticeships by 2020 published by Winchester University Press (2016).

With the growth in apprentices studying and working at degree level and the introduction of the new Apprenticeship levy affecting all big companies and public sector organisations, the new Institute for Apprenticeships is a major development that all employers and universities will want to help shape.

Responsibilities for integrity, quality and funding give the Institute a potentially vital and lasting role in the national skills infrastructure – but only if its role is fully formed, has a full set of relationships including with HE and it has the space to both support and constructively challenge the progress that the reforms are making.

Employer ownership and leadership

The introduction of the levy sees a fundamental shift in the balance of funding away from the public purse and firmly towards employers. The Institute is therefore a very welcome further manifestation of employer ownership and leadership. It needs to do the job that businesses need, while ensuring it secures the support and confidence of three million more (mostly) young people whose lives will be shaped by their Apprenticeship experiences.

While it has taken a long time for the detail of the new Institute for Apprenticeships to be revealed, at least in draft form, there are reasons to believe that this body can make a difference if responses to the consultation pick up on the big opportunities that are presented. 

We will also be in a better place to judge its potential once we see the detail of the Secretary of State’s first strategic guidance and her priorities for the first year.
An example of this will be how far the Institute is encouraged to set funding rates that support the new Industry Strategy and individual sector strategies. This will be especially important at higher skill levels where training costs are typically more expensive.

Critical skills gaps and social mobility

Helping close critical skills gaps must be an essential success criterion for everyone involved in the new skills infrastructure. The Institute needs to be proactive itself and as well as being a key partner in a collective approach, both designing and helping incentivise the skills business and the economy needs. Its relationships with the HE sector will be critical if Higher and Degree Apprenticeships are to respond effectively to the higher skills needs of key growth sectors and scaled more quickly.

It is also good to see reference to Apprenticeships supporting social mobility, not least because it will open more people’s eyes to their potential contribution. The Institute could show important leadership in this area, including pressing for the acceleration of more Apprenticeship pathways to Higher and Degree levels. However, the final strategic guidance will need to give social mobility more prominence than it receives in the consultation document if it is to be at the heart of the Institute’s work.

Measuring the success of the system

The consultation document also asks the Institute to report on how well the system as a whole is delivering successful Apprenticeships. This is absolutely vital if the Institute is to help drive the reforms in a meaningful way. It is an opportunity to help Government with the question justifiably posed by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and others about success and start to set demanding goals for Apprenticeships and quality. 
If the Institute is encouraged to look independently and objectively at the state of the Apprenticeship system overall, we could get a meaningful annual report and debate on how well HE and other skills partners collectively are tackling Apprenticeship-critical issues.

These issues would extend well beyond starts and completions and examine key issues such as what happens to apprentices after they have completed their Apprenticeships; ensuring ladders of progression to Apprenticeships supported by higher education are in place; ensuring better access to information, advice and guidance; reviewing progress in improving vocational teaching; tackling skills shortages; and the participation and progress of under-represented groups.

Annual debate to drive change

The Institute could provide transparency, analysis, rigour and honesty to support an annual state of Apprenticeships debate in which all partners and delivery organisations constructively address progress and improvements.  

The logical next stage of employer leadership is for the Institute to initiate and coordinate this debate and use its influence and powers to drive changes in partnership with Government. 

It is good to see the Institute given leadership responsibilities in respect of quality issues amidst many other organisations with statutory responsibilities in this area. When I was the CEO of the National Apprenticeship Service, our so-called ‘end-to-end’ responsibilities for Apprenticeships depended on much goodwill from partners. It is therefore helpful to start with a clearer exposition of Government expectations for collaboration in a critical area. 

Quality issues must be resolved 

The power to require the Skills Funding Agency to investigate issues is also an important clarification. Some of these investigations should be thematic as well as looking at individual cases of possible quality abuse. There remain issues that undermine quality that seem not to be understood fully or resolved.

For example, many employers wanting to do the right thing for their business and their apprentices struggle with an understanding of ‘off the job learning’ definitions while a significant proportion of learners don’t appreciate they are apprentices.

Listening to the apprenticeship voice

Which leads neatly to the final question about ensuring the voice of apprentices is heard. I hope respondents will have given resounding support to this. It is something we care about strongly in HE. I would have wanted to see the apprentice voice directly on the board itself or at board meetings and I hope this can still be achieved.

Every Apprenticeship employer group with which I have been involved has benefitted hugely from hearing directly from apprentices. They have both inspired employers and grounded them in the reality of experiencing an Apprenticeship

In response to the consultation, I anticipate employers strongly supporting the Institute for Apprenticeships and ensuring their money is well spent. I hope though that they will press for a body that will really make a difference, not simply administering but helping drive Apprenticeship reforms; and giving us an Institute that has a strong prospect of enduring long enough for us all to understand what it does and to capitalise on the massive potential benefits for good that it offers.

The University of Winchester offers a number of degree apprenticeships in partnership with local employers. 

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