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Apprenticeships turf war: Who's in charge of standards?

Tug of war battle dispute argument 1

What happens when the standards of a professional body are at odds with those of the Institute for Apprenticeships? Binyamin Ali examines how the resulting turf war is damaging the industry’s skills pipeline.

“Who would have thought that a chartered town planner apprenticeship would be so secret, that a government body was unable to share all the documentation with a chartered charity?”

Victoria Hills’ frustration is palpable.

The chief executive of the chartered charity in question, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), is reflecting on a drawn-out dispute over one of the dozens of new apprenticeship standards.

When the government announced the next generation of apprenticeships in 2013, it said the move would be employer-led and aligned to professional standards. The RTPI, as the standard-bearer for town-planning, became involved in the trailblazer group tasked with developing the town planner apprenticeship standard.

The government body Ms Hills is referring to is the Institute for Apprenticeships, which was created in April 2017 to oversee and approve the new system.

In May this year, the IfA rejected the proposed end-point assessment (EPA) for Level 7 chartered town planner apprenticeships. The RTPI and fellow members of the trailblazer group have been trying to get it approved ever since.

The group appealed against the IfA’s rejection of the EPA, but this was dismissed on 11 July. It claims that the initial rejection came without warning and that the appeal process lacked transparency, which drove the group to lodge a Freedom of Information request on 19 July for all documents relating to the appeal.

Its request recently came back, but only limited information was provided after the IfA refused to release all the relevant documents – choosing to keep them “secret”, as Ms Hills put it. The trailblazer group has since taken legal advice and is considering its options.

As this saga has continued, the start of the academic year has come and gone, ending any prospect of enrolling a cohort of would-be chartered town planners.

What’s the stumbling block?

According to Ms Hills, the IfA rejected the EPA because it did not feature an interview.

The IfA declined to speak with Construction News, but did issue a statement: “We identified that interpersonal skills such as clear communication, negotiation and mediation were not validly assessed and requested an oral element to appropriately test these KSBs [knowledge, skills and behaviours],” the IfA says.

“There are a range of ways that this can be done, including through the use of a presentation or observation. We have not specified that an interview should be included as a method in the end-point assessment for this standard.”

Ms Hills describes this as “a bit inconsistent […] because they have said that they do want an oral presentation”. But a miscommunication around whether the IfA wants to see an interview or presentation included in the EPA is not the main issue, she argues.

For Ms Hills, the crux of the matter is that by rejecting the assessment method used by the RTPI for decades, the IfA is challenging its professional standards.

The IfA denies this is the case, adding that it “is solely concerned with ensuring that apprenticeship end-point assessments measure occupational competence in a valid, consistent and reliable way”.

Victoria Hills chief executive RTPI

Victoria Hills chief executive RTPI

RTPI chief executive Victoria Hills

The RTPI derives its powers from a royal charter granted 59 years ago and has been accrediting town planners in the UK ever since. Having been involved in the apprenticeship’s development and been able to influence the standard in question, the RTPI decided apprentices who complete the apprenticeship would also become chartered town planners.

Accordingly, the RTPI’s view is that if its assessment methods (which do not feature interviews) are good enough for chartered town planners that have taken the traditional route, why are they not good enough for apprentices?

“This isn’t a case of we’ve done it like this for 59 years and that’s the end of it,” Ms Hills says. “We had a comprehensive review of the APC [assessment of professional competence] in 2015 and that concluded that we don’t need an interview.

“We assess it [communication skills] in the same way that all the competencies are assessed. Candidates have to have real experience in the workplace and they need to record that experience with demonstrable examples of how they have done it.”

Who sets professional standards?

So what happens when the standards of a professional body, such as the RTPI, are at odds with the way the IfA interprets its policy guidance. Which trumps the other?

IfA chief executive Sir Gerry Berragan wrote to trailblazer group co-chair Philip Ridley to inform him of the unsuccessful appeal against the EPA’s rejection. His letter outlines the IfA’s position on the balance of power.

“The RTPI are the ones that are trained, qualified and know what to do and what is best for their profession. It’s not Oftsed or the IfA”

Christopher Welch, Gardiner & Theobald

“You have freely proposed to confer chartered membership of the RTPI as an immediate consequence of passing this apprenticeship standard, and the panel therefore consider that you must follow the EPA criteria set out by the institute,” Sir Gerry said.

In contrast to the disputes over town planning, the chartered surveying trailblazer group has successfully created a Level 6 apprenticeship. However, the group’s chair, Gardiner & Theobald partner Christopher Welch, disagrees with Sir Gerry’s stance.

“We followed our APC guidelines and pathways because it’s well established – universities follow it, employers follow it and academia follow it – it all works,” he says. “I have to say, they [the RTPI] are the professionals, they are the ones that are trained, qualified and know what to do and what is best for their profession. It’s not Oftsed or the IfA.”

Mr Welch adds that at one point it was suggested that Ofsted “might come and audit us […] my view is if Ofsted are going to come and tell me how to do my job then that’s going to be interesting”.

He says he is happy to be audited on process and procedure to ensure the chartered surveying group is doing what it has committed to, but argues that there is a lack of understanding over how professional bodies and employers approach standards in apprenticeships.

“We’re not just trying to get people through it,” Mr Welch says. “We are the upholders of the standard; we’ve not lowered our standards. [The RTPI is] the guardian of the standard for royal town planners. They think they have got their process right; government ought to listen to [them].”

Confusion reigns

The chartered surveying trailblazer group has also been looking to create a Level 7 apprenticeship, which has been in the works for almost three years, Mr Welch says.

This is important, he believes, as it will act as an entry route for those who hold a Master’s degree and only need a two-year top-up to become chartered surveyors. The Level 6 apprenticeship currently on offer is a degree-level programme that takes five to six years to complete.

Generic apprentices Skills training workers 3x2

Generic apprentices Skills training workers 3x2

Cohorts of new apprentices are being held up by the delays

But again, there appears to be a sticking point. Mr Welch says the government has specified that, because apprentices on the Level 7 programme would hold a Master’s, they must emerge with a higher apprenticeship qualification than simply being a member of the RICS. “But of course, it doesn’t work that way because the end-point assessment is the [RICS] APC and whatever route you go into it, you all come out with five letters after your name,” he says.

In response, the IfA stated: “There cannot be two different apprenticeship standards for one occupation, and nor can an occupation exist at more than one occupational level.”

The statement added that “funding rules require relevant prior learning be taken into account in the training programme agreed between employer and training provider”, therefore apprentices with relevant prior learning may see their programmes shortened.

Mr Welch and the IfA appear to disagree over the reason why this apprenticeship standard has not gotten off the ground. This could point to issues around communication – something not lost on Mr Welch.

While he makes clear that IfA case workers are “brilliant” and “really get it”, the problem lies with “those people behind closed doors that you can’t really get at to be able to explain it properly,” he suggests.

Time to talk

The town-planning saga can be seen as a further illustration of these communication concerns.

The RTPI and its town planner trailblazer group felt they had no option but to make an FoI request to shed light on their appeal, having criticised the level of transparency during the process.

Ms Hills claims the group had tried to get in touch with the IfA to request updates on its appeal, but was told: “Sorry we can’t speak to you because we are in the middle of an appeal.” 

“If the Institute for Apprenticeships say, ‘We’ll meet you tomorrow’, we’ll be there like a shot. We just want a conversation”

Victoria Hills, RTPI

However, it was during this time that the IfA sent separate correspondence where it confirmed the apprenticeship would receive the highest funding band. As a result, the trailblazer group was led to believe that “there was no way that they were going to reject our appeal because they have told us what the funding band is going to be”, Ms Hills explains.

Unfortunately, this appears to have been a case of crossed wires and poor communication from the IfA, with Sir Gerry’s letter rejecting the appeal following shortly thereafter.

Then more recently came the IfA response to the FoI request.

“The request was turned down,” co-chair Mr Ridley says. “But within that there was an offer for a meeting with [IfA chief executive] Sir Gerry and we’re trying to arrange a meeting with them to discuss the approach to try to resolve this.”

Mr Ridley adds that the group is looking at the possibility of lodging further challenges against the appeal decision, while trying to ensure it avoids “closing down the doors for further dialogue”.

As for how the ongoing saga will end, Ms Hills says “there’s always going to be a deal”, but that the problem is “we don’t have a date in the diary to meet with them – I don’t have anyone to talk to”.

She adds: “If they [the IfA] say, ‘We’ll meet you tomorrow’, we’ll be there like a shot. We just want a conversation.”

When CN asks Ms Hills for her thoughts on the IfA’s responses, she congratulates us on our ability to get the institute to reply.

As the gatekeepers of the new apprenticeship framework overseeing what does and does not make it across the line, the industry is depending on the IfA’s effectiveness as it attempts to tackle the skills shortage. Yet the town-planning group’s experiences appear to show a lack of the communication and mediation needed to deliver the new system.

And while stalemates such as these rumble on, new apprentices continue to be held back.

A legacy of delays

The new generation of apprenticeships has been hit by wider delays due to multiple issues.

Before the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) was established in April 2017, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had oversight of the new apprenticeships scheme.

The programme then moved to the Department for Education, as skills was taken out of the business department’s remit. The IfA finally received responsibility in 2017.

As the programme changed hands, trailblazer groups (employers and professional bodies that were developing occupational standards and assessments for the new apprenticeships) were made promises by politicians about what was and was not permissible, which the IfA was then unable to keep.

“That posed problems and required quite a lot of reworking on the part of some trailblazers and that took time,” IfA deputy director for standards Jonathan Mitchell told CN in February. “I’d be the first to concede that that’s the case.”

Another stumbling block has centred around terminology.

Since the Richard Review of apprenticeships in 2012, the idea has always been to create one apprenticeship standard per trade. There would be no entry, intermediate or advanced-level apprenticeships – only one definitive apprenticeship standard that would be given a single level.

Construction, however, is an industry that has sometimes differentiated between similar occupations by assigning them different levels, when in fact giving them different names might have been more appropriate.

The misunderstanding in terminology between levels and occupations led to multiple trailblazers developing almost identical standards.

The amount of time lost on these was compounded by a lack of joined-up thinking as the new system was being rolled out, meaning duplicates were only discovered at a later stage.

Readers' comments (1)

  • What we have experienced is that because there has been a lack of progress in standard setting we have been unable to put Trainee Quantity Surveyors looking to do an HNC in Quantity Surveying through an Apprenticeship.

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