How do we ensure digital apprenticeships are fit for purpose?

The House Of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Enquiry into Digital Skills has so far focused on education, whether in schools or colleges or for the digitally excluded. It has yet to address the gulf between the skills (often technology or vendor specific) specified by employers when recruiting staff and the generic qualifications specified by public sector agencies when deciding what to fund.

Thus the English Trailblazer apprentice programme requires adherence to the Skills Funding Agency Qualifications Guide which effectively prevents (page 6, para 19) use of the vendor, professional, trade association or other “commercial” qualifications and associated materials commonly required by recruiters. This policy dates back to Ofqual decisions in 2012 which led to a collapse in FE/HE use of the materials available (often at no charge) from, for example, the CISCO Academy (which had previously underpinned most UK training in network skills) or the vendor neutral courses available from global trade associations like COMPTIA. The situation with regard to IBM, Microsoft and Oracle appears similar but the problem also appears to apply to the courses and qualifications developed by the trading and certification arms of all UK  trade associations and professional bodies – not just those linked to IT and Digital.

The reasons for the policy result from abuses that are more common to other industries, such as the motor industry. If your car is serviced by a local garage instead of a main dealer, the walls of the office may be plastered with certificates showing that the mechanics are competent to use this or that piece of computer-controlled diagnostic equipment. Even the certificates issued on behalf of reputable trade associations or professional bodies may be from money making subsidiaries over whose fees and processes their members have no vote. Meanwhile vendor specific certifications can be an integral part of policies designed to lock independents into the dealer networks of the motor manufacturers and squeeze out motor factors.  

But it is not as though the processes which Ofqual and the SFA are seeking to impose on the new trailblazer apprenticeships will curb the abuses of which most employers, students, practitioners and professionals complain – poor quality for the time, not just money, invested. There appears to be a wish by OfQual and BIS to mandate “open access”, with the quality control of those running courses limited to sampling their certification processes after the event – as opposed to actively encouraging the inspection of the learning materials and equipment used and the CVs of the trainers.

The latter approach was used for Gordon Brown’s Millennium Bugbusters programme – arguably the most successful large scale IT training programme the UK has ever run. It not only helped ensure a trouble free Y2K, it transformed the UK supply of competent microcomputer technicians and maintenance staff. Many of those running IT education and training programmes for the Department for Education and Employment failed to meet the “industry strength quality control” criteria demanded by Treasury as a condition of the Bugbusters funding, Unfortunately the new Department for Education and Skills, created in 2001, then reverted to previous procurement practice, despite what had been revealed during the fiasco of the Individual Learning Accounts.

That may been 15 years ago but the lessons are still, unfortunately, apposite – hence the importance of Julian David’s comments in his excellent recent article on the need to get the right leadership and processes in place for the new Institute for Apprenticeships.

The limited and skewed response to the consultation on the Apprentice Grant and Levy proposals (most inputs were from medium to large organisations in public sector, health and services, few from engineering, manufacturing, construction or small firms) may help explain what is now happening.

We appear set for a fragmentation of standards: those for “Internet of Things security by design standards for mobile widgetmakers” differently organised to those for “non-mobile widgetmakers”.

Meanwhile funding rules, intended to prevent double funding,  require recalculation of costs according to which material is used if students are allowed a choice of vendor supplied certifications to demonstrate generic competence.

Perhaps worse, the proposals focus on the completion of two year apprenticeships at a time when many IT employers are moving towards using eight week intensive, hands-on, blended and experiential learning “boot camps”, to cover that which was traditionally spread over a year or two. The rest of the period covered by any “apprenticeship contract” commonly covers structured, but also productive (and often fee earning) work experience, interspersed with higher level modules, to ensure a return on the up front investment before the trainee is free to leave without incurring a penalty/transfer fee.  .  

We need to find ways forward that better meet the needs and practicalities of the Internet age if the grant and levy process is not to rapidly fall into disrepute..

At a meeting of the Digital Policy Alliance 21st Century Skills Group last week (to review progress with the plans for Local Skills Partnerships), representatives from FE and the IT industry agreed to work together to put flesh on the analysis I summarized in my own submission to the Select Committee (based on discussions at previous meetings). More importantly they agree to invite others to join them to find constructive ways forward. The key points from relevant discussion, (summarised in the meeting report due to be mounted on 9th February after the deadline for comments by those at the meeting) are as follows: 


The issues that need to be addressed in order to provide an effective and accountable framework for closing the resultant gap between FE/HE education and Vendor/Technology training were identified as:

a.    Identify, publish and maintain (the rate of change is accelerating) lists of employer recognized vendor, professional and trade association content and certifications.  

b.    Ensure FE/HE access to subject matter experts who can support delivery.

c.    Establish and maintain frameworks for positioning employer recognized training & certification within the qualification (QCF) constructs

d.    Processes for validating that trained students can apply the skills learned to meet employer needs

e.    Geographic (Skills Funding Agency and other) restrictions on use of employer recognized  training & certification.

The suggested means of addressing the issues is to ask CEdMA (The Computer Education Management Association is the global professional body for technology trainers) to bring those running trade, professional and vendor certifications alongside these in FE/HE to:

a.    Suggest processes for working together to align product, technology, trade and professional certifications with current qualification / frameworks (QCF).

b.    Make recommendations to address SFA regional (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) inconsistencies and restrictions regarding the use of vendor training/certifications.

c.    Engage Vendors and propose a framework of engagement and support covering:

i.    Access to training materials for non commercial use for no charge.
ii.   Discounted access to certification.
iii.  Access to online facilities.
iv.  Support for FE/HE trainers.
v.   Terms and content access processes to enable FE/HE to offer local short courses
vi.  The alignment of vendor training & certification with Government/Industry needs.


The reason for suggesting CEdMA was that its UK and European membership straddles those running IT training operations for vendors, trade association and professional bodies and those contracting them to help with in-house training operations.

Other professional bodies (such as BCS), might not be seen as so neutral because of the revenues they derive from their own training and accreditation operations (e.g. what used to be known as ISEB) – already decimated by current policy and now at growing risk. Meanwhile the Sector Skills Partnerships would not find it easy to take a robust line with those on whose funding their programmes depend.       

If you would like to participate in carrying this exercise forward, and implementing the results, please contact the Digital Policy Alliance or one of its partners in this exercise (there is a growing list in the Skills Partnership progress report on the website.  
It is important to not “just criticize” the policies of the Skills Funding Agency and OfQual but to understand why they have come to be as they are – and help agree ways forward that meet not only the needs of IT employers but of all those facing a world in which the practitioner skills in demand can change faster than any professional body or funding agency can reasonably be expected to agree new specifications.

We also have to stop confusing practitioner skills with professional and academic disciplines, which change slowly, if at all.

The most important gap is therefore that between education and training.