The Silent Third Partner on Apprenticeships

Last week, the Chief Inspector of schools delivered what he called a ‘shot across the bow’ of the Government over apprenticeships. There is a risk, Ofsted warned, that the target of three million apprenticeships this Parliament (compared with 2.2 million in the last Parliament) could lead to an emphasis on quantity over quality.

Nick Boles, the minister responsible, responded last night at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Apprenticeships. Boles pointed out that Britain has fewer apprenticeships, in proportion to its population, than countries like Germany or Switzerland. We also have a lower proportion of employers offering apprenticeships than those countries. So making up the gap should be achievable without sacrificing quality, he argued.

The question is whether enough employers will want to offer apprenticeships. As Ewart Keep, of Oxford University, has argued, this goes to the heart of the quantity versus quality debate. If you have government target to deliver but not enough employers participating, the temptation is always to dilute the meaning of apprenticeships so that more and more things count. This allows governments to hit targets but does little for the economy, for apprentices or for the brand of apprenticeships in the long run. The apprenticeship levy is designed to address this: large employers will pay it and claim their money back only by offering apprenticeships. It is an incentive to spend more on training.

A second, less-discussed risk is employer capture. As our Commission on Apprenticeships explained, apprenticeships represent a three way deal between Government, employers and apprentices themselves. All three parties make sacrifices: employers put resources into on-the-job training, Government provides funding for off-the-job training, and apprentices accept lower wages in return for training. All sides should benefit in the long run: employers through higher productivity, Government through higher tax revenue and apprentices through better pay and prospects when they qualify.

In this three-way deal it is important that no one party is able determine, on their own, what apprenticeships look like. For example, employers are likely to want training specific to their organisation – or type of organisation – whereas apprentices will want a grounding in a vocation that they can build an entire career on. There has to be a balance of interests. However, this is often a blind spot in apprenticeships policy, as it was with the Ofsted report. As Michael Wilshaw put it in an interview about the report, “It [the apprenticeship system] has to be CBI-led and Government led”. This formula involves only two of the three partners in the apprenticeship deal – Government and business. The interests of the workforce are absent.

In the same answer, Wilshaw cited Germany and Switzerland as examples where the apprenticeship ‘architecture’ works better, without recognising the significant role that the workforce has in those countries’ systems. More often than in Britain, apprenticeships lead to occupational qualifications – for example becoming a qualified plumber or roofer. You qualify to work in a particular vocation through an apprenticeship. Professional and occupational groups have an important role in setting these qualifications. This helps ensure that apprenticeships are not too narrow in content, or short on real training, but rather that they involve substantial training and equip people not just for one job but for a career in a particular vocation.

At last night’s APPG, I asked the Minister what role he saw for the workforce in shaping apprenticeships, including through professional and occupational groups. His answer was that professional/occupational groups should become more and more involved in helping shape the new apprenticeship standards. They should, he said, act as guardians of quality within the system, challenging and calling out low quality apprenticeships. This implies a similar role to that seen in other countries, with a balance of interests – and power – between employers and the workforce in vocational training.

Boles had a warning though. Occupational and professional groups should not, he said, erect walls around their profession to keep people out. Nor should they have a ‘toll-gate’ approach whereby they charge people for entry into a profession or occupation. His concern is that professional groups can themselves become vested interests, either denying people the opportunity to work, or charging for the privilege.

The problem is that gatekeeping has benefits too. If you have to qualify for a profession you can also be booted out of it. This creates an incentive for people to uphold professional and ethical standards – working effectively and honestly. That matters a lot in parts of the economy where professionals’ superior knowledge gives them great power over the people they are serving. Think of how little you might know about whether a doctor has made the right diagnosis – or whether a plumber, roofer or car mechanic has.

Occupational groups do other things too. They encourage ongoing professional development for individuals, sometimes as a requirement for continuing to hold qualified status. They also encourage people to develop new ideas and practice within a professional community. This idea of self-governing professional and vocational groups it is not that far from what might once have been called a ‘Big Society’ approach. Another term for it is ‘Associative Democracy’.

All that means that perhaps the answer to Michael Wilshaw’s challenge – quality not just quantity of apprenticeships – is not just national minimum standards, better data and more inspection. Perhaps it is a bigger role for the often-silent third partner in the three way apprenticeship deal: the workforce itself. Nick Boles’ point about vested interests is a fair one, but this can be a problem in an ‘employer-led’ system too which leads to training which is too limited, too narrow and too short-term. A system that produces high quality apprenticeships – and an economy that really values vocational expertise – needs creative tension between all three parties in the apprenticeship deal.