Bringing military discipline to UK Technical Education and Training

On April 6th at the launch of the Apprenticeships Anthology Sir Gerry Berragan, the Chief Executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships outlined progress over the past year and updated his 10 month report at the Ofqual Conference in February. The appointment of the former Head of Army Personnel as CTO for the IfA gives further comfort that the draft IFA Quality statement will be taken seriously. We can expect structure, discipline and accountability to be brought to the tangle of processes that the IfA inherits.  The recent profile of Sir Gerry in FE week , including the reference to his exercise to map Army skills and training standards onto civilian qualifications, indicates that he brings a clearer understanding of the task ahead than most of the academics, officials and politicians around him. I was impressed by his cautious and understated comments on Friday.

I must immediately confess my prejudices. I have an academic background (Cambridge Historian). But this was followed by apprenticeship as a programmer analyst in time to run a decimalisation project from start to finish. My reward was two years at London Business School. My point of reference for looking at processes to define skills and quality assure training providers are those used by the Western Fleet Signal School to define, develop and assess my competence to take charge of the communications of a minor war vessel – although as a cold war Royal Navy reservist working in the Computer Industry I would more likely have served down a nuclear bunker. Later, in the early 1980s, when I was advising ministers on SME support policy (including responsibility for the NCC Microsystems Centre, the flagship technology assessment, training and awareness operation of the day) I was lucky enough to have a former RAF technical instructor, as my deputy with a former WRAF operations room supervisor running our day to day activities. They monitored the supervision of the trainees (from the Threshold double sandwich programme) who ran the centre as we gave them skills that did not then exist on the open market. Their experience in keeping young airmen (both sexes, commissioned or not) out of trouble while they learned how to be both competent and trustworthy, was invaluable. I used it to help  secure government support for IT training programmes that would be effective in turning what we today call NEETs into SME support technicians. These included programmes like the ITECs, City and Guilds 726 and (later) the Millennium Bugbuster Programme. Many of the inspirational trainers I met using innovative digital projects to harness raw talent from sink estates (training, for example, many of the sound and light engineers who helped  transformed the British entertainment scene as well as a whole generation of micro-electronics technicians), were ex-RN or RAF artificers or engineering officers. I have recently come to appreciate that nearly 70% of today’s high-tech Army are also apprentice trained.

I look forward to seeing the IfA bringing the military mix of insight, process, discipline and practicality to the jungle that is the UK vocational education scene. I hear squawks from those who think that “military” means uniformity and lack of innovation. I would reply by saying that it was a retired RN Engineering Commander (running an ITEC turning those excluded from school into skilled and innovative micro electronics applications technicians) from whom I first heard the phrase “one size fits one” (thirty years ago).

I am not sure whether the discussion on April 6th was on-the-record or not so I will confine my comments to the ideas I came away with, not who made them or how.

The IfA priorities over the year ahead will include:

  • improving processes, including by using “digital first” and teleconferencing for that which was previously based on cycles of paperwork and physical attendance at approval meetings.
  • a move from frameworks to standards and commencing a rolling review of current standards.
  • expansion to cover college based technical education.

The IfA is, however,  a small department, barely 80 strong, although it will be doubled in sized in order to handle T levels.

Policy remains with the Department for Education except where it is shared with BEIS and DDCMS.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency will still set funding levels (with bands set by DfE), approve providers and make payments. IFA can make recommendations on funding but not decide. Employers can decide which providers to use or whether to seek to become “providers” in their own right. The latter will involve dealing direct with the evolving requirements and aspirations of OfQual (as per their 2017-18 Corporate Plan) and Ofsted (as per their CEOs speech to the Annual Apprenticeships Conference).

Meanwhile the National Apprenticeship Service will handle promotion

One welcome change is that there the IfA now has an appeals process for when standards are rejected. Employers have complained over the past year that the same faces, under different titles, have continued to fail to explain why they have turned down proposals with strong support from reputable employers while approving those from academic communities with little or no employer support. The new process comprises the Chairman, the CEO and one Board Member. Three appeals are due to be heard next week.  I asked about the position of internationally recognised qualifications with regard to inclusion within standards. I was told that these could be included provided the employers putting forward the standard provide evidence that those without them will not be considered by recruiters. The process for checking is to look on the website and contact those responsible for the standard. I expect that those who raise this concern will wish to check how the process works in practice and test the appeals process is this proves necessary. This problem is not peculiar to IT. Modern vehicles are as unlikely to require UK-specific maintenance and repair processes (including supplier certification) as are IT-related products and services.

There is much in the “Apprentices Anthology” released on the day, including with regard to regional variations and more emerged in the course of discussion.

We are used to being told how important “”ICT” and “Digital” are to the UK economy so it came as a surprise that last year ICT accounted for barely 5% of apprentice starts, compared to 26% for Business Administration and Law or 22% for Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies. Hopefully that will change as the intensive blended learning programmes  launched last year (one organisation alone may have had a throughput of over a thousand) are repackaged as the first stage of graduate level apprenticeships and those who have already mounted successful trials of the scale up their throughput. Thus some of the UK’s largest ICT employers are now switching their staffing strategies from graduate trainees to apprentices.

A consequence it that most Universities are now approaching employees with proposals for graduate level apprenticeships. This had led to a revival in the fortunes of the Sector Skills Councils as employers tell Universities to route their applications via the planning and quality control processes they have extended from accrediting programmes like the ITMB to cover degree linked apprenticeships . They are forcing an overdue rationalisation of the market via their chosen intermediaries.

Meanwhile the majority of those commencing lower level apprenticeships at 16 or 17 with leading ICT employers appear to be applying to enrol on degree linked apprenticeships as soon as they feel confident to move away from home, looked after by an employer who recognises the responsibility entailed. But apprenticeships are not just for the young. They are being used to cross train mature entrants (29%, rising to nearly 50% in Health, Public Services and Care) and unemployed graduates and university drop-outs (30% are aged 19 -24). Meanwhile they are leading to profound change in some university departments. Most plan separate timetables for their apprentices (commonly bloc modules) but at least one has re-arranged its mainstream timetable so that  full-time undergraduates work in the labs Monday to Thursday, share lectures and tutorials with the apprentices on Friday, and socialise afterwards. The expected tensions have not materialised.

The way ahead at the national level will be more challenging but I left the event on Friday  feeling more confident. Provided it is backed by employers who want to see results that meet their needs and politicians who want to see results that meet the needs of their current and future voters, the Institute for Apprenticeships may well be able to bring constructive order to a century old agglomeration of vested interests, without being delayed by a period of unhelpful top-down re-organisation and upheaval.

P.S. Those who fear that the challenge is too great should re-read my blog welcoming the Prime Minister’s review of funding for Further and Higher Education , particularly the references to the Conservative Policy Forum consultation and feedback.  A summary of the next round of CPF consultations has just been put online . The discussion outside the Westminster and Whitehall lobbyists hothouses has begun


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