Sharing learning about Apprenticeships across the UK

Policy makers have often looked to other countries for lessons. Reviewing apprenticeship systems around the world has helped shape current Apprenticeship reforms, with the German system often held up as the holy grail. As Apprenticeships policy in the UK evolves, we must also make use of the emerging differences between nations to explore transferable lessons from our nearest neighbours.

Although Education and Skills policy in the UK is a devolved matter, in all nations Apprenticeships are high on the agenda. IFF has been involved in evaluating the Apprenticeships programme in England and Modern Apprenticeships in Scotland for a number of years and we are pleased to have recently been commissioned to evaluate the Welsh Government’s Apprenticeships programme, part funded by the European Social Fund.

This month the Welsh Government published a new Apprenticeships Strategy ‘Aligning the Apprenticeship Model to the Welsh Economy’. Hearing more about the Strategy at a recent meeting it struck me that although there are many similarities between apprenticeship models in each of the nations – including a stretching target to create a significant increase in Apprenticeship volumes – there are also some key differences. And these differences of focus and implementation present us with an unmissable opportunity to compare and evaluate, and to learn our own lessons on Apprenticeships within the UK.

Employer engagement

Across all nations there is a commitment to putting employers at the heart of designing Apprenticeships to ensure that they meet business needs. In Wales, a newly created Employment and Skills Board will advise on rigour and content. Similarly in Scotland, the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board will provide employer leadership to ensure they are aligned with industry and economic need. In England, Apprenticeship Standards are developed by employer groups known as ‘trailblazers’. Learning how to make best use of employers’ time to shape education and skills provision that is flexible and responsive to the changing needs of industry will be an important learning point.

Frameworks, Standards and Assessment

The English system is going through a process of significant change with Apprenticeship Frameworks to be phased out by 2020 in favour of Apprenticeship Standards – a set of core skills, knowledge and behaviours required for a job role – which are seen as more flexible and linked to specific job roles. Standards are assessed through an end-point assessment and don’t necessarily result in a qualification.

In contrast, the Welsh Apprenticeships Strategy makes clear that qualifications are a key component of Apprenticeship frameworks, with the aim of making them portable and ensuring that skills are easily recognisable/benchmarked. In Wales (as in Scotland and Northern Ireland), Apprenticeship frameworks will continue to be based on National Occupational Standards (NOS), though these are no longer a requirement in England.

It will be interesting to monitor outcomes and compare which approach best achieve quality and rigour for employers and apprentices.

Funding and the Apprenticeship Levy

The Apprenticeship Levy is a UK-wide policy with which employers across all nations must comply. From 6th April this year all employers with a pay bill over £3 million each year must invest in apprenticeships through a levy payment. The Welsh Government has been clear in its characteristation of the levy as an ‘employment tax’, and there will be significant differences in implementation.

In England employers will be able to access their levy funds (topped up by government) via a new apprenticeship service digital account. Employers then decide which training provider they want to spend their money with and the funds are taken from the account. In contrast, the Welsh Government will continue to deliver its Apprenticeship Programme via the Welsh apprenticeship provider network. In Scotland, funding will continue to be administered by SDS through contracted training providers and direct employer contracts. Unlike in England, there are no plans to operate a voucher style system in either Wales or Scotland.

A further difference is what the funding can be spent on. In England, employers can use funds for apprenticeships in any area – as long as it meets the conditions of an approved apprenticeship. In Wales however, funding is being withdrawn for entry level 2 apprenticeships (for over 20 year olds) in non-priority sectors, such as Retail, Business Administration and Customer Service. The aim is to prioritise employer and government investment in high value technical apprenticeships that are viewed as critical for the growth of the Welsh economy.

How employers behave in response to the levy will inevitably be subject of immense scrutiny. Its impact on apprenticeship volumes and quality, and the associated effect on economic productivity and growth will, no doubt, be the focus of much debate.

A further, fascinating dimension will be how the impact of the levy varies by location and how this is driven by the different approaches taken by different nations. Through our expanding portfolio of Apprenticeship work, IFF looks forward to making a valuable contribution to that evidence base and helping to shape the debate.