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Erica Farmer

Quantum Rise Talent Group Ltd

Co- Founder & Business Director, Digital Learning & Apprenticeship Expert, Speaker & Facilitator -

Read more from Erica Farmer

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Practical steps to transforming your organisation through apprenticeships

Practical steps to maximise the power of apprenticeships within your organisation.
Tiny woman opening a giant book full of 3D adventures

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but you wouldn’t just hand over £100,000 to a supplier of services without setting up the correct governance, right? You wouldn’t think twice about understanding the key deliverables, contracting the key performance indicators, engaging all the key stakeholders and most likely aligning payment to performance, surely?

So why do we see, time and time again, L&D departments do this with Apprenticeship providers? 

Apprenticeship providers can be your best friend; with the ability to deliver highly skilled initiatives and bring sector insight and expertise to your organisation

Why are we neglecting the potential of apprenticeships?

Often I see large sums of L&D budget allocated to initiatives such as leadership development programmes, induction reviews and procurement of learning systems, with significant thinking, strategy and governance sitting behind them. But not often when it comes to apprenticeships.

We need to take the same approach with the large amount of money sitting in the apprenticeship levy account, which many corporates are currently losing after not investing it in apprenticeship training and assessment after 24 months.

I’ve managed very large apprenticeship and early careers programmes in my time and delivered apprenticeship services and training to large corporate clients as part of provider teams. Apprenticeship providers can be your best friend; with the ability to deliver highly skilled initiatives and bring sector insight and expertise to your organisation, but we must get our foundations right to fully embrace these partnerships.

So why has over £3 billion of apprenticeship levy funding been returned to the treasury since 2017?

Here’s part of my theory.

  • Too often apprenticeships have sat in the ‘too difficult’ boxes until there is enough pressure from someone who has ‘tripped over’ the fact the company has been paying 0.5% equivalent of its annual payroll into the apprenticeship levy
  • The apprenticeship programme has been fully handed to an independent apprenticeship provider or college, with the hope this is the magic bullet which often leads to a lack of understanding from an L&D perspective and baffling terms about OFSTED and the ESFA
  • Someone in the organisation has decided that they want to do a degree or professional qualification, and there is no other budget put aside for this

Like any investment, there need to be several strategic decisions made to ensure the return is maximised and the best outcome is achieved. Jargon needs to be understood, the right partner(s) procured, the end in mind agreed upon, and most importantly, the ‘why question*’ answered so everyone is clear on the part they play.

*Why apprenticeships? And hopefully, the answer isn’t to claw back the apprenticeship levy as this will not drive the right impact for the organisation or learners.

Big change has happened in skills reform over the last five years

Things have really changed since the levy was introduced in 2017. Apprenticeships moved from frameworks to standards, which were written by employer groups (I led the customer service standards during my time at British Gas) and made them more aligned with the learning outcomes required in each occupation. There are now 820 standards on the Institute for Apprenticeship website, each with its own skills, knowledge and behaviours which must be assessed. 

It’s not just a case of having young people going to college one day a week. Apprenticeships are open to those aged between 16 and 65 years and align with the Qualification Certification Framework (QCF).

This means recognised qualifications are achieved and need to be mapped to the role in which the apprentice is undertaken so it can realistically be achieved. I’ve seen clients decide on this before reviewing the art of the possible, and therefore set the apprentice up for failure rather than success.

In this article, we are sharing some of our key moves which we use with clients to help make sure the foundations are solid and expectations are clear for any great apprenticeship programme. To get us going, put your project management hat on, and make sure these items are key milestones on your project plan.

There is a lot of excellent learning out there too, but get close to this and understand the learning experience

1. Engagement from the top

Your senior team must be fully informed and engaged in your why. Why are you investing in apprenticeships? Is everyone on the same page with this and understands the business will have to invest further in supporting apprentices?

Not only do apprentices need 6 hours per week off the job training for the apprenticeship to be compliant for funding, but line managers also need training on how to manage apprentices, and opportunities need providing. The ‘on the job’ is just as important as the ‘off the job’ and the senior team must endorse this and be able to articulate this.

2. Choosing your best providers

The OFSTED rating is only the beginning, which can change quickly based on ongoing inspections. It’s key to align your apprenticeship providers with your organisational values, and ways of working, and assess how flexible they are willing to be. Don’t let them baffle you with sector jargon. All too often employers have come to me querying a command from a provider which turns out to be a little creative license, and not always in the best interests of the apprentice or organisation.

There are many excellent and conscientious providers out there, so make sure you follow your procurement process and ask for recommendations and case studies from other organisations. Encourage partnership working, and challenge what you don’t understand in a collaborative and friendly way.

Note: This is not your starting point! Get your key principles and engagement in place first, then understand who in the market can deliver this for you.

3. Audit the quality and consistency of the learning

This can be an area where expectations of what is being delivered can be misaligned. Learning delivery is costed by the provider aligned to the maximum funding they can claim for the learner (see the next point regarding funding). Unless you have specifically selected a provider who can co-create a programme specifically for your organisation (which still needs to include the set knowledge, skills and behaviours of the standard) you are likely to be receiving ‘off the shelf’ learning which may be substandard.

There is a lot of excellent learning out there too, but get close to this and understand the learning experience. Don’t just assume all is OK. Several larger providers have had their OFSTED grade downgraded over the last year as they struggled with consistency and quality of specifically online learning due to not investing in the new skillset and mindset with their design and delivery teams.

4. Make sure you know what you are paying from the digital account

Each apprenticeship standard will have a funding cap per learner and should be reduced by the apprenticeship provider based on items such as prior learning and experience that the apprentice already has before joining the apprenticeship. Providers are contracted to undertake an ‘initial assessment’ which includes this and can also request additional funding for additional learning needs.

Make sure you are clear on what you are paying and why, as the money transfers automatically as a monthly programme payment. Remember, you won’t receive any invoice to sign off, as you would do with a commercial supplier or partner, so you must make the effort to manage the finances or they could run away with you.

5. Contract with clear KPIs and service expectations

I often see situations where the organisation has been told to sign certain documents, training plans, and contracts on the digital account, but nowhere is it clear on the detail of deliverables, service expectations, quality indicators and timelines. Again, organisations can be baffled by this and can feel disempowered due to the jargon. Make sure you are clear on what you are measuring and when, and communicate this very clearly in contracts, service agreements and governance boards.

So, these are just a few of my key actions to setting up or scaling up your apprenticeship programme. There is a lot more to it; we’ve not even touched on forecasting and modelling, funding management, talent mapping, learner journeys, roles and responsibilities etc. The opportunity is huge and requires research, insight and expertise to do it justice and create a sustainable, impactful, long-term skills solution.

Apprenticeships programmes are incredible when done well and can drive real impact on organisations

6. Seek independent expertise

Whether it’s from another apprenticeship or early careers lead who is doing a fabulous job, or an independent consultant, make sure you are clear on what you are signing up for, you’ve asked all the right questions, and you are educated on the facts. Apprenticeships programmes are incredible when done well and can drive real impact on organisations. Like anything worthwhile, it's about spending the time and effort laying the right foundations and nourishing it to grow.

Interested in this topic? Read Degree Apprenticeships remain a hidden gem for skills development.

Author Profile Picture
Erica Farmer

Co- Founder & Business Director, Digital Learning & Apprenticeship Expert, Speaker & Facilitator -

Read more from Erica Farmer

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