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Why are we still waiting for apprenticeship levy standards?

Construction has been working with government to develop new apprenticeship standards since 2014. So why have only 27 of the 75 standards submitted been approved for delivery?

In March 2014 the government announced that construction would be among the second batch of sectors, alongside 28 others, to be brought into the new apprenticeship system.

By mid-2015, trade bodies, the CITB and employers from main contractors and architects through to SMEs and consultants had come together to form trailblazer groups, each of which consisted of at least 12 employers. These groups were encouraged to work with as wide a pool of employers as possible, and were handed the task of creating new standards for apprenticeships.

The idea was simple. Each trailblazer group would develop one occupational standard for an apprenticeship, ensuring that each trade had one definitive apprenticeship. These were handed out on a first come, first serve basis, but stakeholders could ask to join a trailblazer group that was developing a standard for a trade in which they had an interest.

As new apprenticeship standards were approved for delivery in a given occupation (bricklaying, for example) employers could begin using them and would phase out any bricklaying apprenticeships they provided under the previous framework. The aim was to ensure all apprentices had a universal competency level within their trade, based on every employer using the same apprenticeship standards.

In April last year the government rolled out its apprenticeship levy, obliging companies with PAYE bills above £3m to pay 0.5 per cent into a government levy fund. This money is used to fund digital accounts for employers to spend on approved apprenticeship programmes. Yet to date, only 27 of the 75 standards submitted have been approved for use. So what’s happened?

Trial and error takes time

The system was a simple and forward-thinking idea. But the problem with a massive overhaul that brings together such a wide variety of stakeholders, and asks them to do something that hasn’t been done before, is the amount of trial and error it involves.

“The guidance is constantly being updated, so what might be permissible this month was then changing, and that is one reason why the process has been long”

Sarah McMonagle, FMB

“The interesting thing about the trailblazer initiative is that the goalposts have moved every now and then,” says FMB director of external affairs Sarah McMonagle.

“The government has learned as it goes, in terms of what works well and what doesn’t. The trailblazer guidance that is published alongside this piece of work is constantly being updated, so what might be permissible this month was then changing sometimes, and that I think is one of the reasons why the process has been long.”

The time it has taken to get the new apprenticeship standards approved has led many in the industry to see them as failing to deliver on their promise. The standards are late even by the government’s expectations, which said in a guidance document to trailblazers back in March 2014: “Our aim is that from 2017/18 all new apprenticeship starts will be on the new standards.”

But changing guidance from government is only one of numerous snags the new standards have hit.

“When we first started developing these trailblazers, the Institute of Apprenticeships didn’t exist,” Ms McMonagle explains. “So it was all coming through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which has since changed to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“And also since that time, skills has been taken out of the Department for Business and put into the Department for Education because the government felt that education, academic and technical should be working more closely together.”

As a result, oversight of the programme has changed hands three times since the second cohort of sectors began developing their new standards in 2014, with the scheme finally finding a purpose-built home in the shape of the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA), created in April 2017.

One of the reasons for establishing the IfA was to take responsibility for approving standards away from civil servants who “didn’t really have knowledge of the industry”, Ms McMonagle suggests, and place it in more informed hands. The IfA’s route panel now fulfils this responsibility and is made up of experts from each industry. The construction group within the route panel comprises seven leading industry lights and is chaired by Gradon Architecture’s technical director Tanja Smith. 

Untangling a legacy of knots

Despite this step forward, the ever-changing guidance policies from previous departments created a legacy of standards now considered unfit for purpose by the IfA.

This is partly due to a more robust application of the quality criteria; in other instances, it is down to the IfA’s inability to fulfil promises made by previous departments that exemptions would be granted to get standards approved.

“When the institute came into being, there was effectively a change in terms of the ability of the government to make exemptions to policy rules that govern apprenticeships,” says IfA deputy director for standards Jonathan Mitchell.

“Before the institute came into being, ministers had a degree of discretion to be able to say, ‘In this particular case for this particular standard, we’re going to make an exemption to this particular policy rule’. That might have been about mandatory qualifications or something about the endpoint assessment being independent or not, for example. Ministers could do that.”

Mr Mitchell adds: “That meant people who started developing a standard before the institute came into being and then tried to get it approved once the institute [was in place] found themselves in an unenviable position, because they had hoped to get exemptions which we were unable to grant. That posed problems and required quite a lot of reworking on the part of some trailblazers and that took time. I’d be the first to concede that that’s the case.”

”At the beginning there was a lack of co-ordination and bigger picture thinking. It was almost like treating every single trailblazer standard in isolation”

Steve Radley, CITB

Another legacy issue the IfA is trying to untangle revolves around terminology. Since the Richard Review in 2012 (the genesis for the new apprenticeships), 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 is, unfortunately, 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.

“Previously we may have said a carpenter level two and a carpenter level three when in truth, they probably should have been called a carpenter, a carpentry specialist, or carpentry supervision,” says CITB policy director Steve Radley. “Somebody operating at what was previously level three, which we call advanced, will be doing very different things on site to somebody who is operating at the previous level 2.”

As a result, there are now two apprenticeships standards currently in development for carpentry and joinery (an advanced level three and a level two), which are both waiting to have their funding band assigned, after which they will be approved.

skills bricklaying generic

skills bricklaying generic

Standards were established for a number of trades, including bricklaying

Putting aside the confusion this creates in a system that was only ever intended to have one level per trade, 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 at the initial stages of development, meaning duplicates were only discovered at a later stage.

“At the beginning there was a lack of co-ordination and bigger picture thinking,” Mr Radley reflects. “It was almost like treating every single trailblazer standard in isolation, when really it needs to be from a sectoral view.”

Mr Mitchell adds: “One of the rules the institute is obliged to implement is around overlap. We were obliged not to approve apprenticeship standards where there was substantial overlap.”

Meanwhile, some of the trailblazer groups that had not fallen foul of the terminology confusion were wrangling about the most appropriate level for their apprenticeship standards. The FMB has been part of the trailblazer group working on the bricklaying and plastering standards since the summer of 2015 (both are yet to have their assessment plan approved and funding band assigned nearly three years later).

“Just because you’re a construction company it doesn’t mean you don’t also need some of those back-office roles where you can spend your levy”

Jonathan Mitchell, Institute for Apprenticeships

The FMB went into the process wanting to “raise the bar and ideally we would have had a level three, three-year apprenticeship in both bricklaying and plastering”, Ms McMonagle says.

“But because that wasn’t the vision of the larger housebuilders, we compromised on a so-called level 2.5 which doesn’t exist, but [we] developed a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship at level two [in bricklaying], so six months longer than what’s currently out there, and making sure that the bare minimum of bricklaying apprentices is now better than it would have been previously.”

She adds: “It was quite eye-opening in that sense. The FMB went into it with a lot of optimism; we thought it was going to be a straightforward process and we were going to be able to get the industry behind us. But it did transpire that some quarters of the industry had different views to the FMB and its members.”

Where are we now?

At the time of writing, there are 75 apprenticeship standards in development for construction, only 27 of which have been approved and are ready for delivery. To the IfA’s credit, of the 27 approved standards, 12 were approved after it was established in April 2017.

It’s little consolation for those businesses that have been paying a levy towards the new apprenticeships since April 2017, yet are unable to use their levy pot as intended because the standard they need hasn’t yet been approved.

“The simple fact is they have got two years from starting to pay their levy until money in their levy account expires,” the IfA’s Mr Mitchell says. “It is absolutely my ambition to make sure they have standards that they can spend that money on long before that levy expires.”

Sarah McMonagle director of external affairs FMB

Sarah McMonagle director of external affairs FMB

FMB director of external affairs Sarah McMonagle: “The guidance is constantly being updated, so what might be permissible this month was then changing”

He adds: “I’m not downplaying the importance of having those construction-focused standards ready to be used. But there are plenty of other standards out there that construction companies also need to use. So just because you’re a construction company it doesn’t mean you don’t also need some of those back-office roles where you can spend your levy and all sorts of other things as well.”

But construction is an industry with a technical skills gap, not a back-office skills gap – something not lost on Mott MacDonald senior early careers adviser Holly Savage. “The development of the standards has been relatively slow in comparison to what our skills shortages are as an industry,” she says.

“They probably should have started us paying levy funds a bit later because the number of standards available are not enough that we would actually maximise the utilisation of our levy, and I think this is across industries.”

Nevertheless, Ms Savage says that on the whole, the changes to apprenticeships are well-intentioned and positive for the industry.

“I do think the apprentice levy is a positive thing and the fact we’ve now got apprenticeship standards to degree level is a majorly positive thing. I think the philosophy behind it is great. It’s just that the timing has been off because there aren’t enough standards available.”

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