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Guest opinion: Government proposals 'threaten viability of apprenticeships and industry competence'

Government proposals to end ‘free’ apprenticeship training will harm rather than help the automotive sector, writes Lee Acton (pictured), chief executive of training provider Skillnet. 

"When he published his Review of Apprenticeships in November 2012, Doug Richard, the former Dragon from BBC’s ‘Dragon’s Den’, made several recommendations about how apprenticeships should be developed to meet the needs of the changing economy.

Some, such as the notion that the testing and validation of qualifications should be independent and genuinely respected by the industry or that all apprentices should have achieved minimum standards in English and Maths before completing their apprenticeship, are hard to argue with.

His recommendation that learners and employers need access to good quality information about apprenticeships is also difficult to disagree with but some of his ideas, which have been adopted by government in their recent proposals for changes in apprenticeships, may be harder to grasp and even have a detrimental effect on training in the automotive sector.

The Department for Education’s view that academic courses should be tested at the end of the course and that success in an examination is the real test of success in acquiring new skills and knowledge, is being extended to apprenticeships.

A proportion of an apprentice’s success will now be judged by whether they can sit and pass end of course examinations.

As a not particularly gifted driver, my strong preference when I hand my car over to have the brakes looked at is that this is done by someone who knows a bit more than just the theory of how a braking system works.

I would like to be confident that my technician has also had significant experience of fixing brakes and that their work has been overseen by someone qualified to assess their actions.

Richard’s review also asserted that employers only value what they pay for and that they should be free to set the price of the apprenticeship training they receive.

His argument seemed to be that unless they wrote the cheque for the training they receive they would not value it and would not fully engage in the process of training their own apprentices.

This idea has struck a chord in government and the proposals will route government funding support to employers rather than directly to training providers and colleges.

At the same time the Government is proposing a mandatory cash contribution from all employers who want to receive government support for this form of training.

Current government proposals, due to come into force next year, will mean that employers will be asked to contribute up to £9,000 towards the training costs of each apprenticeship. This will be in addition to having to pay the wages of their new recruit whilst they are training.

The method of gathering these funds from employers is still being considered but the Government’s commitment to seeing cash move through the system seems very real.

The obvious cash–flow implications of this, particularly for smaller employers, are clearly challenging and may have the effect of reducing the amount of training that the industry does.

The reality is that whilst there are a number of excellent apprenticeship programmes run by motor manufacturers on behalf of their dealer networks, the largest proportion of apprentice vehicle technicians are still trained in the independent sector.

Any addition to the complexity of doing this, or pressure on this part of the sector to fund large parts of the training they need, is likely to result at least in the short to medium term in businesses putting apprenticeships and the training of the young people who want to enter the automotive sector on to the “all a bit too difficult” pile.

The longer term effect of this would be to reduce the number of technically competent people in the automotive industry at a time when increasing technological development and ever more complex vehicles mean we need more. This will push up wage costs for technicians and result in longer waiting times for customers.

Whether the new Skills Minister, Nick Boles, who was promoted to the position in David Cameron’s recent cabinet re-shuffle, takes a different view than his predecessor Matthew Hancock remains to be seen.

What is clear is that there is disquiet amongst the independent sector about these proposals and real concerns that in an attempt to strengthen the apprenticeship standard, real damage could be done to it instead."

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  • Dick Willis - 04/09/2014 12:41

    The introduction of end of term examinations for apprenticeships could be an utter nonsense and demonstrate nothing much beyond how little our policy makers understand about the real world. Like Lee Acton, I want my car serviced by someone who is competent and able to explain to me what needs doing; I don't much care if he or she can't structure an essay properly. My son was apprenticed at 16 and now runs his own garage. As far as I know, he provides a valued and competent service but under the new, exam focused GCSE regime, he would probably have been a complete failure at school and had that also applied to his apprenticeship, he might well have failed that, too. However, practically focused tests of competence, like those of Worldskills, might provide an appropriate lever to improve attainment and higher standards. It will depend on how 'exams' are interpreted and implemented. Payment systems for training and their impact on SMEs... perhaps they should reintroduce Industrial Training Boards and their levy systems? But our manufacturing industries have been so shafted over the years by successive Governments' infatuation with the service and financial sectors that there are probably insufficient big companies left to pay the levies to subsidise training in the small ones.

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