Dragon breathes new life into apprenticeships: Doug Richard's review tells the government that employers should take the lead in vocational trainingIan NashGuardian
Few work training schemes lauded by education ministers under the government's apprenticeship programme pass the quality test of entrepreneur and former Dragons' Den star Doug Richard. Twelve-week courses for staff at the De Vere Hotel Group and upskilling programmes at food retailers Morrisons and Asda - among those businesses criticised earlier this year for branding low-level staff training as apprenticeships - certainly don't qualify for the label under the criteria of the man appointed by the business secretary, Vince Cable, to lead an independent review into the future of apprenticeships.
Not that there's anything wrong with such training, says Richard, former Dragons' Den investor and founder of School for Startups. "But it's upskilling and that's all it is. Include this in your definition of apprenticeships and you devalue the term. It is wrong to think the apprenticeship is the only effective form of vocational training, which must be stretched to fill every task."
This is the single biggest criticism at the heart of the Richard review of apprenticeships, published today. Even the best programmes - "and there are some excellent ones around" - have been tarnished by a minority of rogue apprenticeship-providers, offering short-duration apprenticeships or re-badging work-based training as apprenticeships, he says.
His appointment to lead the review reads like an off-beat episode of Dragons' Den. "I was called in to the Department [for Business, Innovation and Skills] to give my views on apprenticeships. They said they were looking for people who work in small businesses and so would I 'pop along' to help? It turns out it was a job interview - the sort of job where you don't get paid but you do get a lot of work."
A passionate advocate and provider of apprenticeship schemes himself, Richard admits he didn't need much persuading. But he found there were "no end of critics out there", and the temptation simply to gather and respond to key criticisms was strong.
The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) had been heavily criticised for sanctioning short-duration apprenticeships. The Holt Review, published in August, had highlighted the difficulties in getting small companies engaged in delivering apprenticeships and said the current system left them "clueless". And a BIS select committee report had ripped into the system over the lack of clarity and clear definition of the qualification. Apprenticeships were misunderstood, inaccessible and not helped by the plethora of organisations willing to give "advice".
What Richard proposes in the report amounts to a three-point plan that involves employers designing and developing apprenticeships in line with quality standards defined by the government, which would be part-funded by the government through tax incentives (rather than via government grants, as is the case now) and only to those employers who can show that their training meets the widest needs of apprentices for career progression in and beyond the company.
"The term 'apprenticeship' should be reserved only for new jobs requiring sustained and substantial training. Everything else should be seen as separate work-based programmes," he says, including in this the thousands of current level-2 (GCSE-equivalent) and pre-apprenticeship vocational schemes, which currently also attract government funding.
As he carried out the review, no end of commentators urged him to look to countries like Switzerland - which has an exemplary record on apprenticeships - for tried and tested answers, says Richard.
But he resisted, all too aware of the dangers of trying to simply transplant systems developed in a very different economy, labour market and social partnership.
Instead, he has taken a scythe to the existing system, adding new ideas. The current complex apprenticeship framework, qualifications system and occupational standards (which benchmark skills and competencies for particular industries) should be scrapped and replaced with a high-level, meaningful "end of apprenticeship assessment", which would be linked to professional standards for registration, where they exist (in sectors like accountancy, for example).
And, in the true spirit of entrepreneurship, he suggests employers with relevant expertise, individually or in partnership, be invited to compete to design apprenticeship qualifications in their area.
Continuous assessment should be replaced with independent, end-of-apprenticeship tests, based on a project or presentation where the apprentice must show they are competent and employable within their company and the wider industry, he says.
He is critical of schools, teachers, parents and government for failing to give adequate advice and guidance to school leavers. "We need to make sure young people get the message that an apprenticeship offers a great start in life with just as many benefits as - if not more than - a university degree," he says.
But he argues against major structural changes and abolition of organisations such as sector skills councils and the NAS as "wasteful". Instead, they should be reformed and made more relevant to the needs of employers and apprentices. But everyone involved in designing and delivering apprenticeships needs to ask themselves how they can improve their game, he says.
Above all, there is an urgent need to tackle the low status of apprenticeships, he says. "Elsewhere, in Europe and beyond, apprenticeships are held in very high regard. This is a very different world from England where all the prestige is tied to a university education and all alternatives are considered second-class. The future is not going to be forgiving of such prejudices."
Doug Richard proposes the word apprenticeship be used only for jobs requiring sustained and substantial training Steve Stills