5/10 for the IfA Digital Apprenticeships Standards Review

The Statutory Review of the Digital Apprenticeship standards  inherited by the Institute for Apprenticeships answers less than half the question. Much of the question (e.g. allowable costs) is outside its remit and the resources available for the review were limited. A low score should, therefore, not be unexpected but the conclusion that IT Support skills are be covered elsewhere was surprising, to say the least.

An Insiders’ Review

The inputs to the review were limited to those employers, apprentice and training providers with “direct experience of the apprenticeship standards”. Those unable to make the standards process work, not interested in the standards agreed or unable to participate for other reasons were not asked to comment. The positive responses:

  • 85% of apprentices said the apprenticeship met their expectations.
  • 95% of respondents said the title of the standard reflected the content.

from those involved were therefore to be expected.

However, “41% of respondents (employers and training providers) encountered difficulties training apprentices”. Unfortunately these are not described in any detail.
89% of respondents said that off the job training on the standards was between 20% and 39%. Those with experience of mainstream industry training programmes would regard this as surprising high for programmes expected to last more than year. The use of supervised, hands-on blended learning, home study modules, interspersed with the occasional group workshop or residential modules means 5% or less would be more common. Such a training programme would not qualify as an apprenticeship for levy purposes. Meanwhile employers with large numbers to train to common standards appear to prefer 10 – 12 week digital boot camps to 12 – 18 month digital apprenticeships, even though the latter can be offset against the apprenticeship levy.

The review looks at a subset of the market. Great care should be taken in extrapolating the results

Sensible updates mixed with unrealistic ambitions

Most, but not all (see below) of the recommendations as to which the inherited standards should be retained and revised and which should be withdrawn, with “some of the content incorporated into revised standards, broadening and enhancing the content” are uncontroversial. The plans to align apprenticeships, T levels and Level 4 and 5 qualifications with common occupational maps are welcome.. So too are plans to link reviews of Level 3 standards and content.

But the idea that the IfA map will cover “the whole of technical education” is over ambitious. The standards for which the IfA has responsibility cover but a subset of the English subset of a digital education market in which most of the standards recognised by industry are international. The IfA is right to focus its efforts on establishing a reputation for quality and relevance but this will not be helped by over ambition as to what it can achieve by itself. It needs to partner with reputable players, local, national or global.

Specific Comments

  • “Digital and Technology Solutions Professional (Level 6): will be retained on the basis that each of the individual options are reviewed in detail to ensure they each meet the requirements of an occupation.”

Each of the “occupations” cross boundaries and overlap with technologies and applications which are evolving at an accelerating rate. Reviewing the cross disciplinary intellectual frameworks necessary to cope with change is more important than the reviewing transient detail. That will entail looking at how those running industry and commercial certification and accreditation programme handle the pace of change. When the IfA was created I attended a meeting (organised at the request of the Minister) at which members of Digital Policy Alliance Skills Group offered to brief IfA staff on the processes they used to keep abreast of change. At the time there were no staff in post to brief. Perhaps the time has come for the IfA to take up that offer.

  • IS Business Analyst (Level 4) will be revised and broadened in scope to become Digital Product Analyst/Digital Business Analyst (Level 4). The occupation should apply to a broader range of sectors rather than just Information Systems to better serve the needs of employers.”

This is particularly important given that there is no separate standard for “systems engineering” where the “system” is an evolving mix of networked hardware, software and wetware (people processes) with shifting boundaries between the three. Thus the AI-based “system” may be hardware (inference  and authentication  chips) and software in support of people processes (because complete autonomy without human oversight is uninsurable).

Including systems engineering in “Digital Network and Infrastructure Engineer” implies a narrow definition of the range of roles where the disciplines and techniques are required. I speak as one who was trained in the in the 1970s before systems engineering became confused with digital systems engineering.

The problem with removing knowledge units and mandatory qualifications as opposed to the need for robust, rapid and efficient change processes

The report identifies the problems with using “knowledge units” from existing qualifications to enable “future proofing” by building on the review and update processes of those maintaining them. However, requiring the “trailblazer groups” to “bring all relevant information into a standard as they are redeveloped” gives them a difficult choice. Do they attempt to bring the update processes in-house (a massive task) or to negotiate compromises which have the support of those for whom enabling their trainees to acquire the skills currently recognised by their suppliers, customers and peers is more important than recovering their levy. The latter will be essential for the digital apprenticeship market to achieve its potential.

Digital (both information and control systems) is not, however, the only skills market dominated by requirements for internationally recognised qualifications, some generic but many vendor maintained (e.g. to install, use and maintain specific product ranges). Aerospace, automotive and critical infrastructure utilities and many branches of engineering have similar needs.
The solution to the problem of maintaining lists of relevant qualifications coving “the full range of software and approaches required for full occupational competence” is not to wish this onto the existing trailblazer groups. It is to allow them to work with the qualifications bodies, professional bodies, trade associations and training providers who are already in the process of developing semi-automated, networked, routines, linked to on-line libraries of course planning, content and assessment materials. The IfA should look at the potential for working with those seeking to create a neutral “hub“ for such routines in order to transform the position of the UK as market-leader.

This happens to be one of the projects I have just passed to the team at the Open University which has taken over from me in running the DPA Skills Group https://dpalliance.org.uk/about-21st-century-skills-group/. The aim is to package and publicise the existing inter-operability and exchange processes of JISC, the Grids for Learning, the various STEM, Coding and Content initiatives and the main global content libraries. It could also be used to provide a much more practical solution than that proposed.

Supporting Small Businesses

The basic idea of meeting the needs of small businesses, whether suppliers or users, by directly involving sample SMEs in setting digital standards is impractical. According to the ONS Business Survey 2018  there are

  • 7, 500 employers with more than 250 staff, i.e. large enough to have the in-house expertise to help specify training needs.
  • 35,000 with between 50 and 249 employees i.e. large enough to employ more than a handful of apprentices.
  • 210,000 with between 10 and 49 (who might employ one or two)
  • 1,1 million with 1 to 9.
  • 4 million sole traders

Meaningful inputs on the needs of all but the top 7,500 employers will only come via the relevant trade associations or professional bodies.

The decision to require the IfA to work direct with employers, cutting out intermediaries (like the sector skills councils), without providing the necessary resources and budgets, means the standards processes are unable to reflect the needs of over 95% of employers and half the workforce. To remedy the situation it has to allow the trailblazer standards groups to re-create processes for working with those intermediaries who genuinely represent the collective needs of their members, the 1.3 million SMEs who collectively employ as many as the top 7,500.

The good news is that we can see that happening with former “intermediaries” providing the secretariat for many of the more effective standards. But the lack of such input to the review process may explain the most puzzling recommendation in the report: that to remove ”IT Support, as the occupation was judged to be covered elsewhere”. Apart from suppliers of IT products, services and support, only 7,500 businesses are likely to have more than one or two full time digital technicians or professionals. The other 1.3 million are reliant on external support. Hence the reason for qualifications like those from COMPTIA  (a not for profit trade association created to provide vendor neutral training for the employees of the IT support market).

There is a need to explain where “elsewhere” is – since it covers most of the digital skills market. .

Promoting Diversity

Changing the language in job adverts can be surprisingly effective but there is also a need to address the academic or other pre-requisites for apprenticeship programmes. Many of these merely serve to filter out those excluded from mainstream education for reasons not relevant to their employability. The bigger issue with promoting diversity is, however, allowable costs – including for socially inclusive recruitment and pastoral care for vulnerable apprentices in SMEs with no in-house processes. This is outside the scope of the review.

Establishing principles for future approval

Most of these look sensible, albeit THEY ARE much harder to implement than to agree.

One of the hardest is: “Naming conventions – occupational standards should adhere to consistent naming conventions across the Digital Route to promote consistency and understanding”. It reads well and similar phrases are repeated regularly in report on skills and professionalism.

Over the fifty years since I became a graduate apprentice programmer (before there were computer science courses) I have seen countless attempts to produce common taxonomies. None achieved traction.

There is, however, an alternative way of achieving the objective.

In the 1980s I ran the NCC Microsystems Centre (the flagship awareness programme of the day). We needed a taxonomy for indexing our monthly-updated “Directories on Disc”, covering the hardware, software and training on the UK market. We used what would now be called AI to help collate those already available. We quickly determined that many definitions overlapped and rarely matched the claims of the suppliers. We decided to instead embed a synonym finder. This was also updated monthly with the aid of the journalists and product reviewers for whom we held open house after I scrapped the PR budget. The result turned the Directories into a must-have industry index and turned round the finances of the operation.

The situation with digital definitions (whether of hardware or software techniques, products and services or the skills to develop and use them) has become even muddier over the decades since.

None of the many subsequent attempts to produce skills taxonomies has been successful outside specialist areas where certificates to practice are mandatory or big budgets (as with some of the US DoD contracts for NIST) are available. That has not stopped players (UK, EU or US) from trying, whenever they can find a sponsor with deep enough pockets. Einstein’s supposed definition of madness  is apposite . A synonym finder updated by those who want to use the results for their own purposes is much easier and more useful, especially if it has on-line cross references to the work of others.

The reference to the cross-cutting nature of digital skills and the “Essential Digital Skills Framework” is apposite but that framework is itself overdue for review. The reference to “Handling information and content” needs to include reference to recording and/or checking the provenance of the information. Security for that which is false or misleading, not just misleading, is not enough. This is commonly omitted. The consequent risks are profound. When I did my “digital apprenticeship” in 1968/9 it was core part of my training, alongside the GIGO (“garbage in = garbage out”) principle. I had to find out when, where and how the data was collected and the motivation (if any) of the staff collecting it, correcting it and entering it to the system.

Occupational Maps and the removal of the IT Support path

The removal of “IT Support” without alternative pathways will severely limit the relevance of digital apprenticeships to those who support the 99% of businesses with no full-time digital expertise. One can understand the reasoning that led that conclusion only in the context of confining the review to those who have been able to make the current standards system work. But the consequences it makes my headline score of 5/10 appear generous in the eyes of those whose needs are left out.

In the 1980s the NCC Threshold Programme, the Microsystems Centres and ITECs provided apprenticeship-like programmes and hands-on skills incubators to train tens of thousands of support technicians (with City Guilds 726 providing the framework for customisation to meet the needs of clusters of employers). But their success in putting socially excluded teenagers into well-paid jobs threatened the status of academic computing. Funding and support was diverted into “computer literacy” programmes (to feed students onto the academic courses). The UK supply of digital support technician skills imploded (save for the Millennium Bugbusters programme) until the Americans came to the rescue with vendor neutral programmes (like those of COMPTIA) to complement the vendor Academy programmes (like those of CISCO and Microsoft).

The success of local skills incubators in organising digital and engineering apprenticeships (and other training programmes) to meet the needs of geographic clusters shows what can be achieved. But it appears that those conducting this review decided, possibly correctly, that they have neither the resources nor terms of reference to provide digital support apprenticeship frameworks for use by the Borchester  or Causton  skills incubators or to help the digital supply chain copy the approach of the Builders Merchants. The latter have apparently organised a network of 200 local training agents to handle the organisation of apprenticeships on behalf of those in the supply chains of their 800 members.

Future Statutory Reviews

The report tells us what we can expect from future reviews. They will “again start with the content of the occupational standard” but “will have an enhanced focus on the quality of each EPA [end point assessment]. They will also “ benefit from even more targeted communications and engagement activity with employers, apprentices, provides and other stakeholders such as EPAOs [end point assessment organisations].

In others words they will again be conducted by those who stayed the trailblazer course and have been able to make the existing system work to meet their needs.
It is unclear how “public” the future consultations on “Occupational Maps” for other sectors will be but it is well worth looking at the IfA Occupational Map for Digital
and comparing this with the maps produced by the various professional bodies, trade associations, training providers and advice services trying to attract people into digital careers


I have awarded half marks because the report covers only half the question. It addresses the concerns of those who have been able to make the standards system work. It does not address the concerns of those who have not. And there are far more of the latter.

Given the resources available to the IfA for this review it might be unreasonable to expect more. But if the Government wants to use a successful start to rebuilding the UK apprenticeship system as part of its platform for the next General Election (whenever that comes) it will need to provide the IfA with the resources and terms of reference to ask, and answer, the whole question.

Comments received:

Jon Hall (Open University) has commented as below

  1. Digital and Technology Solutions Professional (Level 6): will be retained on the basis that each of the individual options are reviewed in detail to ensure they each meet the requirements of an occupation. occupation as opposed to a profession?

The choice of words is revealing: occupation applies to the practitioner as part of a profession, perhaps, but what is an apprenticeship if not the expression of the sustainability of the profession over the individual? Are we to assume that the correct criteria for review are those of the individual, in that case? If so, what hope for those critical skills a degree teaches?

2. Future proofing

This isn’t necessarily achieved by removing anything from a syllabus, but from thinking more carefully about its conceptual core, something that universities (should be) good at, but that trainers can miss. From that conceptual core come the notions of, what I call, a ‘sand topic: something that moves (sand dunes drift) but sufficiently slowly as to be captured in a long term syllabus, and a ’sky’ topic which, like the clouds, moves too fast to capture once and for all. Trainers do the latter better than universities under the traditional models of both, but some unis, including mine, have techniques for keeping up with the leading edge and providing self-updating skills at the same time.

3. Promoting diversity

You’re right, of course. The work of Rachel Acraft is also pertinent (thesis available on demand from me) in which she identified the ‘drama’ model of computing: (paraphrasing) we need set designers, musicians, lighting engineers, producers, directors and myriad others to have something of dramatic value, not just authors. Producing a solution with computation embedded is similarly team based, requiring skills from all over the place. So diversity or role provides for a broader skill base. Digital apprenticeships mould recognise this sort of diversity too.

It has also been pointed out to that the first video manifesto for a Conservative party leadership candidate uses degree-linked apprenticeships as an example of “Fairness” and “Choice”. At least three of the other declared candidates are know to be strong supporters of apprenticeships. Will they also use them as a plank in their campaigns?

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