Five reasons to be cheerful – about the future of apprenticeships over the next five years
Apprenticeships are back in fashion - political parties vying to outbid each other with bigger, bolder, better ideas for apprenticeship reform. The Tories will create a million more of them; Labour want ‘gold standard’ ones available for each school leaver. Political promises and media hype combine to create a climate in which the ‘currency’ of apprenticeships is one you’d want to buy right now – but are employers and young people and their parents so eager to get their hands on them and do LEPs have a brokerage role at local level in encouraging and facilitating take up? Whichever government is in power after the general election, I think LEPs will play a critical coordinating and connecting role in ensuring targets for apprenticeship growth are met - and LEPs will need to up our game to lead this change.
One of the achievements of LEPs over the last four years has been to engage more businesses in the work of skills providers of all types from across their local areas. Where LEPs have been successful, they are able to demonstrate that they have helped bridge long standing, and sometimes entrenched chasms of misunderstanding between the different worlds of employers and providers - that tired refrain that goes something like ‘providers don’t turn out the skilled recruits employers need’ and ‘employers don’t know that their local providers can supply the skills they need’.
The culture, language, and behaviours required by ‘local growth deal making’ have helped break the mould. Negotiating and prioritizing local growth deals have presented opportunities to LEPs to develop strong strategic relationships with the principals and governors of FE colleges, independent training providers and local authority adult education services, leading to maturing relationships based on shared vision, mutual respect and a commitment to shared partnership working. No one says this is easy, and sometimes individuals from all sides slip back into more familiar game playing and point scoring habits. However, where key players have formed effective partnerships, robust foundations now exist on which further positive developments can be built. Our shared challenge is to ensure greater take up of apprenticeships by employers of all sizes, together with stronger promotion of the importance of apprenticeships.
We have made some progress on this front for example in my own LEP, the SE Midlands (SEMLEP) where apprenticeships are integral to our agreed growth plans to 2020 for three principal reasons. They are a significant contributor to job growth in key sectors (with12, 939 starts during 2013/14) and to our GDP target (an estimated £30-40 return on every £1 invested); they help our businesses to ‘grow their own’ and to identify and nurture new talent in our LEP growth sectors, with businesses now providing evidence of increased productivity, greater employee loyalty and improved customer satisfaction through their participation in apprenticeship programmes; and they provide career progression pathways for young people, unemployed/young NEET and adults helping to promote a more diverse workforce.
To realise our 2020 target, SEMLEP providers and employers have jointly agreed a partnership plan to improve the volume, value and impact of apprenticeships across our LEP area. Our shared ambition is to increase the number of apprenticeship starts by 5% each year until 2020. This is not, however, without its challenges that include achieving significant year on year growth at the same time as implementing major change in national funding and standards reform, limited impartial support for SMEs to broker the skills they need to grow their business, on-going limited awareness of apprenticeships and positioning higher apprenticeships as a viable route for both learners and employers and building provider ‘readiness’ for higher apprenticeships.
Notwithstanding the enormity go the task ahead, I am optimistic about what we can achieve together over the next five years – regardless of the political colour of the government.
My five reasons to be cheerful are as follows
• general political and social consensus around the importance of apprenticeships provides the much-needed game changer to shift overall perceptions and practices. The positive momentum on this front can only continue and grow, with tentative signs that customer demand (from school leavers and employers) is gradually rising too
• the value we place on high quality technical and vocational education, from STEM subjects to the Creative & Cultural Industries, is gaining pace and its status beginning to improve especially as it is recognised that the nation’s future economic well being and global standing depends on this
• media figures, programmes, features, social media pay more attention to skills these days then ever before - at local, national and global levels; celebrations of skills and apprenticeships have wider coverage as seen through World Skills, National Skills Show, National Apprenticeships Week, a growing number of local skills celebrations and awards events; this influences the surrounding mood music which unconsciously affects individual choices
• the rise and rise of localism and devolved funding accountabilities - which will present a range of opportunities to local authorities, employers, local skills providers and LEPs for smart collective strategic leadership underpinned by co-created coherent plans that meet agreed local needs
• ‘next generation’ leadership of the skills sector, particularly of FE colleges twenty years after incorporation; collaborative leadership, paralleled by that of local councils and business and characterised by relentless focus on meeting the collective needs of local communities, LEP priorities and the nation’s overarching industrial and sectoral strategies