Here’s the third in our occasional series of ‘other materials’ from the Consortium and its members, which are all free to use — and which could be of interest, and practical use, to staff within provider organisations across the FE and Skills sector.

Download and print this Acrobat PDF checklist to help you self-assess your organisation’s current approaches to initial assessment, and the issues around that. It will  help you to evaluate the adequacy and sufficiency of your organisation’s current activity in those fields, establish your evidence base for your judgements, and to plan improvements.

This is a ‘taster’ sample of a fuller series of such materials aimed at the quality assurance and improvement aspects of a wide range of provision factors. Please feel free to leave a comment, or to contact us for further information.

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Mick Fletcher responds to the first funding announcement from the new Skills Minister, Nick Boles. This piece appeared originally in the ‘FE Experts’ section of ‘FE Week’ on 22nd July 2014.

It was perhaps inevitable that the decision of the government to cave in to a pressure group of the privileged, and to abandon the idea of funding per student for 16-19s, should be announced now. It was either a new minister, ‘bounced’ into a quick decision which his more experienced predecessors knew to duck; or, a pre-planned strategy to let it out just before Parliament and most of the education world went on summer break.  We’ll never know for sure, though we can be sure that to give extra funding for those pupils who are easiest to teach is a thoroughly retrograde step.

One of the key achievements of Alison Wolf’s proposals to reform 16-19 education was to return the sector to funding students, not qualifications.  It makes every sense to leave it to institutions to decide how big a programme a student can tackle, as they do at every other stage of schooling. This system worked well for decades in school 6th forms, until the Learning and Skills Council decided to harmonise the 16-18 system around a funding model better suited to adult FE.

The Wolf reforms to funding were intended to get rid of the perverse incentives inherent in the LSC model; but one perverse incentive had become deeply ingrained. Those institutions that select only the most able students found that the discredited qualification funding regime had suited them financially; to put it crudely, students doing four ‘A’ levels earn twice the cash of those who can only cope with two. Although therefore there had been scarcely a word of concern about large programmes before the LSC regime was introduced, the prospect of its removal caused panic. Institutions would no longer be able to offer large programmes, it was claimed — and thus, able state students would no longer be stretched.

Investigation of these claims has shown them to be largely without foundation — which is presumably why Matthew Hancock wisely refused to give in to demands to introduce a sort of ‘posh kids’ premium’. In education policy, however, it seems that it is not the quality of evidence that matters, but the quality of your contacts. This maxim is well-illustrated by comparing the large-programmes debate with the recent furore over cutting funding for 18-year-olds.

In this latter case, it is clear that the 17.5% reduction to the funding of 18-year-olds will damage the quality of programmes that institutions are able to offer to young people. It is also clear that the effect will fall hardest on the less advantaged; those who for whatever reason are taking longer than the presumed norm to reach level 3 standard. It will disproportionately affect those in FE colleges, those on vocational programmes and those from disadvantaged homes.

Despite a powerful public campaign, which has united organisations across the whole of the sector, the minister has so far refused to give way. Although the discriminatory effect of this cut could be avoided without additional cost (by, for example, applying a flat-rate reduction to all 16-18 programmes) there has been no hint of compromise. Far from being concerned that 18-year-olds should be ‘stretched’, the government line is that these students have had their fill of enrichment activities and only deserve a year of ‘FE Lite’.

In the end, schools and colleges will not discriminate in this way, of course. They will manage the cuts across the whole of their budgets to make sure that, as far as possible, students’ programmes match their needs, and not the funding incentives which are no less perverse for being planned. That is of course what the selective sector would have done, had it had been faced down. That is what it always did in the days before LSC. It is revealing, however, that government finds it easier to defend the privileges of the fortunate than to provide equal treatment for those who have fallen behind.


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As Parliament went into recess, the Policy Consortium’s Ian Nash cheekily rummaged through the wastepaper bins of the Commons Library and other places to find the ‘lost’ speech that Opposition Leader Ed Miliband should have delivered at last week’s Sutton Trust Higher Ambitions Summit on Apprenticeships and Vocational Education.

In the name of openness, we now publish the key passages of that alternative  ‘lost Miliband speech’ here.  [Please note: his actual speech, as delivered on that day, can be seen via the hot-link at the bottom.]

ED MILIBAND: Friends, I start out by making no apologies for the previous Labour Government’s policy of getting 50% of 18 to 30-year-olds into higher education. And I make no apologies now for turning the focus back on the forgotten 50% who don’t aim for university. Of course, we never forgot them; whereas, the Coalition has in fact forgotten, or at best marginalised, them.

[Pause here, for applause!]

The next Labour Government will not hold with the nonsensical policy of impossibly-targeted English and Maths GCSE resits for those marginalised school-leavers failed by the Coalition Government’s misguided obsession with GCSE resits. Such repeat testing is a proven route to further failure. Instead, we will offer appropriate programmes as part of a broad and powerful pathway of excellence for all.

Matthew Hancock and David Cameron talk not only of an apprenticeship or university for all school leavers; worse, they talk of these two pathways being ‘in competition’ with each other. But these should not be competing pathways; nor will they be, after we win the 2015 General Election.

So, where the Coalition offers only destructive competition, we will bring constructive co-operation; where the Coalition Government brings only cul-de-sac resits, we bring imaginative pathways to real progression.

Remember – it was a Labour Government that created Foundation Degrees which, coupled with HNDs, have led to 211 further education colleges, often partnered with universities, to offer degree-level vocational qualifications. It is now time to take this a huge further step. We will do two things vitally lacking in the Coalition’s short-sighted strategy.

First, we will empower colleges to offer their own degrees to full BA status. They will have the choice of also continuing partnerships where they have proven to be so constructive, as in Stafford and Bedford where the universities work in partnership with colleges and employers.

Second, we will introduce a new full technically-based BA degree that is a progressive step beyond the FD, giving full honours status. The degrees will only be accredited if they are employer-led, co-produced with FHE colleges or universities, rooted in STEM subjects and take people from the full range of pathways post-GCSE/Tech Bacc.

[Further pause for applause!]

Third, we will create new apprenticeships – an extension of the best sandwich degrees provided post-War – which will give those who desire it a chance to earn while they learn.

HNC/Ds and now Foundation Degrees have been around long enough to give the evidence we need of alternative pathways for all who work hard beyond school – not by having to resit school qualifications, but by taking an alternative course more relevant and motivating for their age, aptitude, attitude and disposition.

Research evidence at this Sutton Trust Higher Ambitions Summit reminds us unequivocally that many parents will not be persuaded that Apprenticeships are a route with equal merit to degrees – until they are seen to lead directly to full degree status.

It is clear from what we have seen that this is not where the Coalition policies will take us. Only a Labour Government will do that. And only a Labour Government will make such goals a realistic prospect for the 100% — who will then be able to progress as far as their hopes, aspirations, abilities and aptitudes can take them.

[Pause once again, for yet more applause!]

Before I finish, I want to be frank with you about how Labour got lost in its own rhetoric, almost to the point of destruction. When I was elected to lead Labour in Opposition, I said I would be open, honest and transparent. Well, I have to say that I think the obsession with degrees was knee-jerk silliness. I will remind you that we never really, actually….strictly speaking….had a policy of getting half of all school leavers to university. Perhaps we did over-egg the ‘all-shall-graduate’ cake a tad.

What we actually said was that we wanted 50% of all people to have sound experience of higher education from age 18 to 30 – and that might include a PhD or it might be the first year of a professional nursing course. But when the press and media misinterpreted this as degrees for all…well, we thought “It’s giving us a good press, why not go with it?”

And when teacher unions, school governors and professional associations accused us of elitist and damaging policies, we could whisper: “Don’t believe everything you read in the Daily Mail, we’re talking accessible, affordable, local FE at top-ranking further education colleges.”

A combination of a good press and great grins from the professions and laity proved it was a win-win situation and won Tony Blair two further General Elections.

Unfortunately it also opened doors to even more extreme and reactionary policies from the Coalition army of deranged thinkers in Gove-rnment. And I must admit it leaves us in a bit of an ideological mess.

So if you have any bright ideas for good radical Labour Government policies over the coming break, they will be gratefully received.

Thank you and have a good summer break.

[Wait for prolonged final burst of tumultuous applause!]

Ed ‘Finger-on-the-Pulse’ Miliband

[Editor’s note: for some unexplained reason, this text was found in the bin on crumpled sheets of paper, ripped into several parts and annotated with indecipherable comments in red ink involving lots of underlining and exclamation marks, from the Labour Media office.]


Here’s what Ed Miliband actually said:

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Mick Fletcher writes about the necessity of a new strategic vision for policy which places the individual at the centre of genuine choice in learning. This is a slightly-adapted version of an article that first appeared in the Summer 2014 edition (Vol. 25, No.4) of ‘Adults Learning’, published by NIACE.

There are few things we can all agree on in relation to education and training, but one of them has to be the growing gap between the lifelong learning system we need for a prosperous and civilised future and what is happening on the ground.

Increasing globalisation requires more investment in the skills that drive competitiveness; the pace of technological change brings a requirement to learn new skills across the life-course; and an ageing and increasingly diverse society requires informed, active and tolerant citizens who can take charge of their own lives and help support others. Meanwhile, investment in training by employers is falling, state funding is in even sharper decline and key institutions are under threat.

This disconnect reflects a serious strategic failure. In large part, this is because lifelong learning policy has for many years been limited to two broad approaches. One has been endless reform of the so-called ‘supply side’, seeking to make institutions ever more responsive to ‘customers’. The other has been the aspiration to put employers ‘in the driving seat’. Both strategies seek to tackle important, but ultimately second-order, issues. Both are wholly inadequate to deal with the cluster of challenges we face.

Although the ‘supply side’ reforms have helped improve choice and responsiveness, it is clear that competition alone cannot deliver the comprehensive lifelong learning system that we need. We need collaboration at a local level to make the most of scarce resources and help avoid people falling through the net. We need institutions that can support autonomous learning, rather than focussing solely on their own recruitment and viability. We also need a national framework that provides clarity and stability, so that individuals and organisations can plan for the future with confidence.

It is also true that we need employers to invest more in training and retraining their workforce and to help identify the skills that will be needed in the future. ‘Employer ownership’ is however in danger of degenerating into a situation where employers merely bid for a greater share of scarce public funding, rather than one that drives increased private spending. Moreover, in a world where more and more people are self-employed, and an increasing proportion of those in jobs are on temporary and insecure contracts, we cannot rely on employers even for all occupationally-relevant training.

Since investment by employers and by the state is likely to be inadequate to meet all our future needs, it is clear that individuals and families will be called upon to meet more of the costs. We need to build a consensus about the share of costs that should be borne by students and put in place a carefully-constructed programme of support to help and encourage people to pay. Unlike HE, however, where the transition from grant to loan funding was phased in cautiously over several years, arrangements for advanced learning loans for those over the age of 24 have been imposed rapidly and without proper preparation. Institutional funding is being withdrawn at an accelerating rate.

It is clear that participation has been damaged by the sudden switch to loans – in relation to adult apprentices, so badly that the move has been abandoned equally suddenly. Nevertheless, the government is now proposing even more radical reforms to apprenticeship funding, again ignoring widespread concerns expressed by colleges, private providers and many small- and medium-sized employers. We cannot carry on with a top-down model of policy development that fails to build a consensus on the way forward.

What is needed is a new and comprehensive settlement for lifelong learning, with the citizen at the centre. Although employers have a vital role to play in training their workforce, and government will always need to support the vulnerable, it is now more often individuals and their families who have to navigate the complex challenges of the 21st century. They are best placed to determine the learning that they need. Therefore, they should have the loudest voice — not least because it is they who increasingly will bear the cost. This means respecting the choices that people make, rather than specifying what is needed from the centre; and extending accountability to communities through more democratic methods of control.

To build a new consensus will not be easy. It needs to have cross-party support if it is to be durable and to achieve buy-in from public, private and voluntary organisations, if it is to be effective. It needs to recognise financial realities – but at the same time, confidently assert the economic and social benefits of a learning society. It needs to cover traditional courses at all levels, but also outreach and guidance and learner support. All this will take time: but since there is so much agreement on the nature of the problem, a shared approach to the solution should not be impossible.

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Mike Cooper writes about the current state of play regarding the Advanced Learner Loans, and some of the key issues underlying the topic. This piece is an adapted version of an article that appeared in ‘FE Week’ on 21si April 2014.

When I wrote this April about the second round of FE Loans, the new application process had just opened. A few months on, what’s happening? Where are things heading?

Spreading the payments?
Most notably, moves to extend FE Loans ‘downwards’ (both for age and level) has begun; many preparing for the 2013-14 round saw this as inevitable, for several reasons. A recent BIS consultation makes several proposals. If adopted, loans to cover fees will also apply to 19-23s taking certain kinds of Level 2 learning, in addition to 24+ learners taking Level 3/4 courses. HNC and HND funding would move from the university sector into FE’s orbit, and Loans. Part of that reflects concerns over ‘bogus’ colleges and learners; FE arrangements are easier to monitor.

Some providers didn’t engage with that first round, though, since they had few or no learners over 23, and/or little or no learning beyond Level 2. Some may even have retreated from those ‘older’ and/or ‘higher’ fields.

If the consultation’s suggestions are adopted, however, they may well apply to courses from August 2015. Thus, many FE providers not much involved with Loans may need to re-consider their strategic and operational positions, to plan for tis coming year, and implementation thereafter.

There’s also proposals to making loans more acceptable to some Muslim learners. I’ll discuss that below.

Loans in mind?
Having been involved in LSIS support for providers towards the first round of Loans, I’m convinced that successful and less successful FE Loans ventures depend first and foremost on attitude and mindset within providers. That strongly affects the ‘mood music’ throughout all parts of the organisation, and its community, and that can have big impacts on messages and take-up. Where it’s in a minor key, learners can walk away, and everybody loses. Those who were doubtful or even hostile had their reasons, of course. But if that restricts or even prevents participation, then there’s a problem for us all.

Loans for many kinds of FE learning aren’t going away (a general election notwithstanding), and indeed, their territory is spreading. So it may be time to embrace the concept more wholeheartedly. Even those with real philosophical doubts should see some real potential advantages.

That can be a ‘tough ask’, whether at the strategic level and/or at the front line. Investing in your post-school education and training just isn’t as strong a tradition or philosophy in Britain as it is elsewhere. Things may be changing, but perhaps not quickly and solidly enough. And such mindset matters are the bedrock of systems and success.

Watch the figures?
One possible new sign of continued hesitations, despite some encouraging statistics, lies in the set of April-May 2014 figures for the new round of 24+ Loan applications. Where we might have expected increases compared to the corresponding period last year, through the system settling and building momentum, take-up so far this time looks to be around half of the same period in 2013.

It’s early days; there may be many explanations. But, even given the removal of Apprenticeships (which accounted for few applications last time, anyway), the picture so far raises some concerns. How many learners may have been put off, for whatever reason? What’s been the impact of ‘mindset’?

Perhaps it will indeed turn round, over coming months. Yet, a total Loans budget of £129 million for the 2013-14 financial year was apparently by no means fully used,. For this financial year, that’s more than tripled to £398m. The trend needs to be much more sharply upwards, soon. If not, then the implications for the sector, and the nation, are a worry – and particularly given the shrinking of the ASB, and the proposed ‘double-downwards’ expansion. This income-stream matters, and increasingly so

Take a fuller look at ‘takaful’?
Finally, here’s a bit of ‘wish-fulfilment’. An earlier BIS consultation considered how loans for HE could accommodate the beliefs of many Muslims, for whom the conventional ideas of borrowing and interest are unacceptable. The likeliest system to be adopted is one based on the concept of ‘takaful’: shared benefit and obligation. Simply put, this involves a fund built up by a community, allowing its members to draw on the money contributed. They then contribute back into the fund in turn, as and when possible.

It’s an interesting approach. And, it’s a quite familiar one in some parts of the Western world, especially England: think of the ideals and methods of the early co-operative movement, ‘mutuals’, and friendly societies.

The BIS consultation suggests that this could also happen for FE Loans. A logical question arises: if such a ‘takaful’ system can be used for Muslim learners, both in HE and FE, why couldn’t it also apply to all learners?



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Andrew Morris discusses ways ahead for the sector in using evidence to improve professional practice. (Please note that this is a revised and extended version of an ‘FE Expert’ column originally published in ‘FE Week’ on 30th May 2014.)

Whether the new professional standards developed by the Education and Training Foundation actually make a difference in practice will depend on creating the right conditions locally. Just what these conditions are proved a key theme in discussions at a recent Learning and Skills Research Network workshop. Sally Dicketts, Chief Executive of Activate Learning (a group of providers in Oxfordshire and Berkshire) spoke for many present by saying that teacher professionalism is best developed through engaging with evidence in a safe and supportive environment: “We need to be kind to one another, to create good emotional environments for teachers to learn in, not fight-or-flight ones”.

The two new standards that relate to research knowledge were the subject of discussion. “Updating your knowledge of educational research” and “applying theoretical understanding” are reasonable expectations in any profession, but meeting them is no easy task. The challenges they present are for the system as a whole, therefore, as well as for the individuals within it.

Many speakers emphasised that learning from research evidence should not be seen as a lone pursuit. Working through communities of practice – in which teachers, trainers and researchers work together to interpret public evidence and engage in systematic enquiries of their own – is more effective. These are developing in a number of places and encouragement is needed to extend them.

The case for collaborative approaches to professional development is itself grounded in sound research evidence. A systematic review at the EPPI Centre, for example, found that collaborative approaches to CPD “gave teachers greater confidence and belief in their power to make a difference to their pupils’ learning and resulted in greater commitment to changing practice”. The joint-practice-development (JPD) approach advocated by Maggie Gregson from the University of Sunderland and expressed in the LSIS/ETF research development schemes “takes account of existing practice and balances research evidence with local insight”.

The idea that sound research evidence should inform practice is becoming embodied in a number of professional institutions developing across the public services. In health, there is a long tradition of professionals organising their own institutions. For example, the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, General Practitioners and Midwifes focus on training, professional development and guidance on good practice – all grounded in research evidence. Influenced by this, a College of Policing was recently set up which is setting professional standards and promoting good practice based on evidence. A College of Teaching is under active discussion with the intention of enabling (school) teachers to assume ownership of professionalism in their sector, informed by evidence.

The LSRN workshop considered how the sector as a whole should respond to the new standards. The most immediate plea was for efforts to raise awareness throughout the sector of the standards – and the opportunity they present for creating a sense of professional identity. More profoundly, participants urged the profession to take ownership and control of the standards and how they should be interpreted in practice. If it fails to do this, no doubt other powerful forces will move in to act on its behalf.

But how is awareness to be raised and ownership achieved? Simultaneous moves by the various actors were proposed in the workshop plenary session. For speed, a top-down approach through national representative bodies and leadership teams is needed. At the same time, practitioner networks and organisations taking a bottom-up approach are likely produce the greatest effect. Peer-to-peer dialogue at the local level – a sideways approach – will help spread practical ideas about applying the standards in real settings. All are needed.

Awareness and ownership are of course simply the initial conditions necessary to give the new standards a chance. The harder question is how they will actually help the job of teaching and learning. In reality, neither “updating our knowledge of research” nor “applying theoretical understanding” are any kind of a pushover. Both are laudable objectives but neither is easy to enact.

A memorable study of social service institutions identified three types of approach to using evidence. One saw the individual practitioner as essentially responsible; in the second, the institution had a person or department that took the lead; and in the third, use of evidence was embedded in the way the whole organisation operated. In my own experience of education, serious change of practice requires a whole-organisation approach. To relinquish cherished ways of teaching, assessing and supporting students just because the evidence is against you is hard. We tend to cling on to safe and tested procedures as much in our professional as in our personal lives. To persuade ourselves to try a different approach, we need encouragement from above and support from all around. Using evidence to change practice is as much a social process as a scientific or intellectual one. The creation of communities is a powerful help, whether it is the micro-community of a teaching team, the larger one of the whole organisation or the broader community of an external network. These settings help innovative approaches to be trialled, findings and experiences to be shared and using evidence to be an enjoyable and stimulating experience.

However, it seems unlikely that any external infrastructure will be introduced to support institutions in mobilising the evidence needed for staff to update themselves. If this is to be anything more than an individual responsibility, leaders and practice communities will need to adapt resources they have to hand. CPD programmes might be orientated to explore the evidence behind teaching practices, librarians might be encouraged to search for research publications and practitioner groups stimulated to carry out small-scale before-and-after studies around changes they plan to make.

A number of colleges have pioneered these approaches and the Learning and Skills Research Network helps them share their experiences. Other public resources have become available in recent years to support this work. The ‘Inside Evidence’ publication from LSIS offers examples of practice-based research, as well as reports on large-scale studies. The EPPI Centre offers systematic reviews of research in a few relevant topics and the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Teaching & Learning Toolkit’ provides a highly-accessible introduction to the most effective evidence-based practices (although these are based on research in schools). The National Foundation for Educational Research offers guidance to help colleges organise themselves to engage with evidence, leading to the award of a Research Mark, which a number of colleges have already achieved.

The plea from the LSRN workshop is for an inclusive approach to realising these new standards. As suggested earlier, to update knowledge and apply theory are not simple tasks for the individual to meet unaided. They require a combined effort by teachers and trainers, academics, unions and intermediary organisations to ensure that a self–determining professional culture develops, in which collaboration and the use of evidence become the norm. To leave this open for others to determine would be a sad loss for the profession.

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Mick Fletcher’s latest blog was originally published in ‘FE Week’ on 20 June 2014. He suggests that the BIS plan for National Colleges once again raises the ugly spectre of class prejudice.

The idea that the problems of English FE can be solved by creating a new cadre of elite colleges was a bad idea when suggested by Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, bad when trailed as government policy by Business Secretary Vince Cable, and bad now that it has been officially launched by Skills Minister Matthew Hancock.

Despite the unusual distinction of endorsement by all three major political parties, the idea that segregation leads to success ignores all the lessons of history and risks damaging rather than developing progression routes to advanced vocational study.

Fundamentally, however, it is wrong because it is suffused with the corrosive prejudices of the English class system.

Class prejudice in England is so deeply ingrained that it is easily overlooked. Consider for example, the defence of engineering, endlessly quoted in almost every discussion of the subject — “people think it’s all about men with oily rags”.

It is true that engineering as a discipline can be a demanding theoretical subject, but the unspoken assumption is that it’s understandable, acceptable even, to look down on those who work with their hands and with the apocryphal oily rag. Those men (and women) who keep our vehicles safe, keep the lights on in schools and hospitals and keep the wheels of industry turning are obviously less worthy of our respect than those who work in clean suits at a desk: so obviously so that it’s not worth stating.

The unspoken assumption behind the elite colleges proposal is that it will remove those studying the more abstract aspects of vocational programmes from those with oily rags and grubby overalls — who are to be left behind in their local technical colleges. This will add to their status, although at the expense of those left behind (since status is a zero-sum game).

It is the same prejudice that taints the otherwise laudable development of University Technical Colleges — they make it clear to everyone that they focus on ‘clean’ technical subjects, while the ‘oily rag men’ go to studio schools.

Although they will gain in status from being distanced from those who get their hands dirty, the new vocational vanguard will not make it into the social elite. This is why we so often seem to feel the need to create new institutions, despite having a range of world-class universities delivering high-level technical skills.

The clue as to why can be found in another class-based mantra of middle England — a profession of regret that the admirable polytechnics became universities. Underpinning these expressions of concern about the ‘loss’ of polytechnics is a deep mistrust of mass higher education. The polytechnics, like the colleges of advanced technology before them, did not abandon technical studies when they changed their name — far from being ‘lost’, their applied and technical students gained the status of a university degree.

The real concern is that too many did, undermining the English assumption that degree-level study is only for the elect. They may also have got ideas above their station in life by having studied alongside those following non-technical disciplines — unexceptionable when offered to the few in a traditional university, but somehow unacceptable when made more widely available.

This is why the elite colleges, despite their name, will aspire mainly to ‘sub-degree level work’. The clue, as they say, is in that very name. The intention is to develop a corps of non-commissioned officers, given a little status by their separation from the foot soldiers — but under no illusion that they dine at the top table.

Moreover, students at these new colleges will not be distracted by the other possibilities offered in institutions with a broad and balanced range of disciplines — true polytechnics. These monotechnics are not simply focussed around a discipline but around projects, if the HS2 model is typical.

Limited in breadth and limited in ambition; it is a peculiarly circumscribed notion of ‘elite’.

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Ian Nash of the Policy Consortium reports from the recent AELP Annual Conference, and particularly on the current state of play regarding apprenticeship funding.

Radical plans from the Coalition Government to give employers full control over the funding and design of apprenticeships have failed to convince the world of business, or the training providers who currently manage off-the-job training and assessment, that the initiative can succeed.

Behind all the ministerial rhetoric about record-level rises in numbers of apprenticeships lies a sad truth – the Coalition Government is no nearer a sound funding policy for the re-skilling of Britain through apprenticeships than it was when it came to power. It boasts a six-fold increase in higher-level apprenticeships since 2012; but that’s merely a rise from 100 to 600 participants.

But it’s not only in the numbers game where the government has more trouble than it will admit to – it is heading into stormy waters over the rights and responsibilities of employers in this area of training. While few argue against employers having maximum control, there is fierce opposition to reforms which would require mandatory cash payments from employers while channelling government subsidies directly to the employer, either through the PAYE system or via training credits into online accounts.

The strength of resistance emerged earlier this month at the annual conference of the Association for Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) in London. Employers said that unless they could pay their share “in kind” rather than cash, the scheme would be unaffordable, particularly for small businesses. They were also unconvinced – despite government assurances to the contrary – that the bureaucratic burden would be anything but costly and unmanageable for the vast army of small businesses on which the government depends to make the scheme a success.

Only 8-10% of employers take on apprentices in the UK (one of the lowest participation rates in the developed world), and Government promises to pay two-thirds of costs, worth between £2,000 and £18,000, has failed to sway them. When you look at the average duration of apprenticeships in the UK, it is a pitiful one to two years; whereas in Germany and other leading competitor nations it is three.

Vital support from the CBI for the reforms seems to be waning. The confederation’s employment and skills director Neil Carberry told Matthew Hancock, the FE and skills minister, at the conference: “Business wants co-investment, not co-payment”. He also backed many members, particularly in manufacturing, who are calling for a choice either to take the cash directly or to channel it through training providers. While control should ultimately be with the employer, he said, change needed time. “We can see the case for more direct funding but it is a case of working this through.”

Hancock refused to accept the arguments and insisted sweeping changes would happen suddenly, soon after the introduction of trailblazer schemes next year, where volunteer companies would mark out the future direction of apprenticeships. He likened the change to the “big switchover to digital TV” and insisted “employers value what they pay for and pay for what they value”. Does Hancock really see the digital switchover as a success? He must have a very short memory.

However, officials at the conference appeared to take the government’s foot off the accelerator. Jennifer Coupland, Deputy Director of the Joint Apprenticeships Unit at BIS/DfE, said: “What we are looking for is cash contributions; we won’t be counting income; we won’t be counting apprenticeship salaries.” But it then became apparent from her subsequent comments that the speed of change was being overstated by ministers. She expressed disquiet over the threat of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to boycott apprenticeships. “There are still concerns about whether SMEs will be part of this,” she said. While ministers are trumpeting a full switch by 2016, Whitehall officials are privately suggesting that 2018 would be more realistic. But even then, the “cash only” approach won’t win employers over.

So the big question on the lips of many employers and training providers during and since the conference is why, in its fifth year, the Coalition Government should be arguing the case for such fundamental changes eleven months before a General Election. What had happened in the interim? If ministers were so convinced more than four years ago about the need for employer ownership, why were they still running “trailblazers” and still unready to implement a firm policy now? It was seen as either an admission of failure or an effort to woo the restive right wing of the Tory back bench. The word “trailblazer” sounds more decisive than “pilot”, which is what the scheme really is.

But what lies behind the hype? Hancock stresses the successes of an apprenticeship revolution already embarked on, the record recruitment and success rates and the elimination of short ineffective apprenticeships. But he fails to point out that much of the problem provision he claims to have eliminated was the result of rushed Coalition reforms in the first place. It took the delegates at the AELP conference to remind him that the successes were actually the result of a reform agenda stretching back at least ten-years. Moreover, there has been a succession of apprenticeship inquiries in the past four years, not least the Holt and Richard reviews, from which the government is now seen as cherry-picking its way forward against the clearly-expressed preferences of the majority of interested parties during extensive consultations.

So, now we have yet more proposals out for consultation, to put state funding of apprenticeships directly in the hands of employers. Hancock describes the AELP as his “sales force” and “private army” in the struggle to win employers and support their apprenticeship training initiatives. Unfortunately for him, the troops are voting with their feet. When 200 conference delegates were asked to vote on various aspects of the proposals, fewer than one in ten (9 per cent) expected his reforms to spur new or existing businesses to offer more apprenticeships. There was not much more optimism from the CBI or Federation of Small Businesses.

There is an overwhelming air of scepticism. Employer take-up of apprenticeships is low because government funding was capped to this figure, they say. And when Hancock suggested the cap would be lifted, the general conclusion was that it would be done so simply by increasing the burden on employers.

The latest government proposals look generous. As Mick Fletcher has written recently, on this website, the spin on the proposals is ‘£2 for £1’ – government will match employer funding at a ratio of 2:1, up to a set cap per standard. But as his analysis shows, the proposals won’t lever in more employer cash, they won’t lead to a cut in prices and they come with a complicated array of caps, bonuses and staggered payments.

The Government is missing the point entirely when it comes to funding. The growth of apprenticeships has not been held back by budget constraints.  In recent years, the Skills Funding Agency has failed to spend the apprenticeships budget even when some dodgy practices were allowed. BIS are not worried about costs because for every full-time student who takes up an apprenticeship they save at least £4,000 in FE, school or HE spending.

The problem is one that has dogged government after government. What constitutes a fair employer contribution? How is it measured? It is an issue that Hancock’s predecessor and FE and skills minister John Hayes said would be solved within the lifetime of this government. The only certainty in all this is that it will not be solved.

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We’ve recently added a fresh category to our website: ‘Other resources’.

This further section holds new kinds of materials that are unlike our more usual sort of comment and analysis articles, which give our perspectives on current news and issues. These different resources within the new menu can be put to immediate practical use by many colleagues around the FE sector, if they wish, in their everyday work.

The first item in this new section, published in late May, compiles a series of our pieces (published in various parts of the education media over a period of several months) about FE inspection and improvement into one hot-linked summary. We’ll produce more such thematically-linked guides to long-running key topics for the sector over the following months, and alert our subscribers when they appear.

The latest addition to the ‘Other resources’ sub-section is even more different in its purpose, nature and format. It offers organisations such as colleges and independent training providers (and their senior leader and middle-managers, in particular) an interactive tool for assessing the  adequacy and sufficiency of their current offer to learners on the matters of employability skills, responsiveness to local labour market needs and links with Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs). It uses some approaches familiar from the current Ofsted Common Inspection Framework for FE and Skills.

It doesn’t offer solutions, but helps providers self-evaluate and rate their present situation, to articulate the reasons for their judgements, and to consider what actions might need to follow — with what they feel are the appropriate levels of priority and resourcing.

The tool has already been helpfully scrutinised and tested by a number of staff in managerial roles amongst a variety of provider organisations, and revised in response to their thoughtful feedback.

You are invited to download the tool — which is in Microsoft Excel spreadsheet form — to use as you see fit. This could be for purposes such as general curriculum review and development, staff development, strategic planning, preparation towards inspection, and so on.

Those who make use of the tool are invited to respond to us in due course in any or all of three ways:

  1. general feedback on the tool and how they feel it works in real ‘front-line’ practice, to help us refine and improve  it still further;
  2. to send us their scores on the tool’s self-assessment activities, for fully-anonymous aggregation with other results to begin to generate some rough bench-marking (with the promise of a response as and when we have sufficient data to allow substantive comparisons);
  3. and/or, to request our help as consultants on the sort of practical steps that could help improve their provision in these regards, through design, delivery and so on (this service would involve negotiated fees — unlike the free offer of the tool at this stage, or the supply of bench-marking comparisons in return, as mentioned in no. 2, above).

This new Policy Consortium targeted self-assessment and quality improvement tool can be found HERE, in that new ‘Other resources’ section of our website.


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In an article originally published (in a slightly different and shorter form) by ‘FE Week’ on 6 June 2014, Policy Consortium member Mick Fletcher considers the introduction of a mandatory 33% contribution by employers to the funding of Apprenticeships.

The new BIS guidance on trailblazer funding is an heroic attempt to achieve incompatible policy objectives.  Encouraging more employers to take on apprentices while also insisting they pay more for the privilege was always going to be difficult — but the proposals issued last week almost succeed. They do so, however, by being too generous to employers at the same time as deterring their involvement through administrative complexity.

The spin on the proposals is £2 for £1 – government will match employer funding at a ratio of 2 for 1, up to a set cap per standard.  Depending on the audience, this can be sold as good value for employers or as ‘getting tough with them’ by insisting for the first time on a ‘mandatory cash contribution’.  Actually, it’s a lot more generous than that: in addition to the misnamed ‘maximum government contribution’ (MGC) or cap, the taxpayer will hand over bonuses for successful completion, for recruiting 16-18s, and to small firms.

The key sentence is the one that makes clear that employers can “use these incentive payments as you wish”: in other words, it is open to any employer to net them off against their mandatory cash contribution.  The table below shows that in the great majority of cases (most apprenticeships will be in the lower bands), a small firm can get more than its cash back — and large firms pay a lot less than you might think.  Set this against the 25-year-old single mum wanting to better herself through a BTEC Diploma who gets charged 100%!

Basic taxpayer funding (MGC) Gross employer funding Net employer funding [1]
16-18 Adult
SME Large SME Large
£2,000 £1,000 -£600 -£100 nil £500
£3,000 £1,500 -£400 £100 £500 £1,000
£,6000 £3,000 -£600 £300 £1,200 £2,100
£8,000 £4,000 -£800 £400 £1,600 £2,800
£18,000 £9,000 -£1,800 £900 £3,600 £6,300

A lot of course depends on how the new standards are allocated to bands or caps. Assume that a given apprenticeship currently costs £6,000 to deliver and its successor costs much the same.  Since current funding is assumed to reflect costs, government now pays £6,000 for a 16-18 year old starter and £3,000 for most adults.  Employers with adult apprentices are expected to pay £3,000. In practice, they rarely do and therefore providers deliver for £3,000 (or usually an average depending on the mix of ages recruited).

If this programme were to be put in the £6,000 band, government would pay at a level ranging from £6,900 for adults in large firms rising to £9,600 for 16-18s in small firms; generous, indeed.  If it were put in the £3,000 band, government would pay from £3,500 for adults in large firms to £4,900 for young people in small ones.  Employers would need to pay no more than they now do for adults — but over £1,000 for young people to make up the gap. This is not consistent either with the policy intention for adults, nor with the assertion that ‘many’ young people would still be fully funded.

Though technically clever these new proposals seem set to fail to deliver on three of the principal stated purposes of the reform.

  • They won’t lever in more employer cash, and certainly not for the 16-18 age group, since they are still mainly fully funded. This raises the question: ‘Why complicate matters at all for young people?’
  • They won’t exert much downward pressure on prices. There’s no incentive to negotiate 16-18 prices — and for adults, employers lose £66 of every £100 they knock off the fee.
  • The complication of five caps, three sorts of bonuses, staggered payments and an untested apprenticeship credit mechanism represent just the sort of bureaucracy from which SMEs will run a mile. Moreover, the ‘cliff edges’ between (e.g.) £8000 and £18000 suggest that complexity is sure to grow.

It is fortunate that the timescale for the trailblazers gives ample time for the serious revisions that are surely needed to this approach .


[1] Calculated as employer cash contribution less (where appropriate) 16-18, small firm and achievement bonuses

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