Mon 18th June 2018

The Axia Blog: The Not so Secret Diary of an Idealist

Apprenticeship Reform:  Another initiative doomed to fail or an opportunity to do things well?

Paula Rowland, MD of Axia Solutions, writes:

Having been involved in education and training now for 29 years I have had many a rich and rewarding experience seeing individuals of all ages learn and develop new skills, growing in confidence as they realise at least some of their potential. From an early age I was hooked on education and the power it can bestow. It was no surprise therefore that I chose teaching as a career making my way through Secondary and Further Education and eventually into private sector training. I am still humbled by what learning can do for people and on so many levels, and so have accepted now that for me a life outside of this, despite all of its frustrations, setbacks and false dawns would probably prove to be an uncomfortable habitat.

But before I appear to be completely evangelical in my devotion to education  it is only right that I confess to having had more than my fair share of eye rolling, ‘what was that all about!’ moments when monumental exertion in the name of teaching and learning just didn’t achieve anywhere near the desired effects.  I have lived through endless new initiatives and education reform requiring both teacher and pupil to jump through yet more hoops always with the promise that the next wave of change will at last ensure we reach the gold standard. I still feel an acute sense of exhaustion as I recall grappling with Tomlinson’s 14-19 Diplomas which were to see the end of A levels. Don’t get me wrong I quite liked A levels, in fact had nothing against them, having worked hard for a few myself, but during my time in FE I fell under the spell of vocational education and its transformative effect on those who had previously felt alienated from conventional academic learning. After a couple of years therefore of throwing myself into the design, writing and rewriting of the Diploma I was lucky enough to be part of getting a rather successful 14-19 Engineering Diploma off the ground only to have it unceremoniously whipped away in 2013. Government decided it was all change again as Diplomas were deemed a failure and ceased to be. I remember thinking ‘well thanks for that’ as I realised I’d never get those hours of my life back again. Since this time in Full Time Education we have had the Tech Bach and the Study Programme and now the new T levels. All initiatives that have merit but more often than not the new is actually not the new but a rehash of the old and one might think if it didn’t work the first time then there is a distinct possibility it may not do so the second or third time around.

Now of course we are in the midst of major change in Work Based Education with the Apprenticeship Reforms that really kicked off in earnest last May. There has never been a more challenging time to test our staying power as we strive to implement the Apprenticeship reforms of the past two years. They have been fraught with problems and not least around the funding which has been resented by both levy payers who felt they had been taxed and SMEs many of whom dislike the co funding policy. In addition we have had to navigate around the stuttering release of standards and uncertain EPA arrangements.  Government has not quite made up its mind about New Standards or Frameworks, on the job or off the job and a system designed to boost apprenticeship take up has to date resulted in a significant drop compared to the pre reform era. But in spite of the cynicism expressed here I think on balance the reforms were needed and have at their core the right principles to be effective. Reflecting back on other initiatives failure is more often than not about poor implementation rather than a poor idea and with this in mind the new apprenticeship era demands a sincere shift in approach from employer, training provider and trainee alike if it is to be a success.

Below the weathered surface I confess I remain a hopeless idealist. In Bill Bryson’s ’The Road to Little Dribbling’ a follow up to ‘Notes from a Small Island’ he laments a bygone age when we liked to do things well just because we could. As the ultimate idealist I live in hope that this sentiment is not lost and that we still have the capacity, even in Brexit Britain, to strive for the greater good. When in 2017 I left Hugh Baird College in Liverpool to return to Staffordshire as MD of a private training provider I saw it as maybe my last chance to finally test my theory that it is still possible to create and realize a vision in which ones USP is simply to do things well, to be uncompromising in quality whilst simultaneously managing to make a decent living running a successful business. I believe we have now been provided with the best chance ever of being able to do things well for both employer and individual, whilst creating a climate that allows for the training provider to operate with integrity. The employer is in the driving seat, if only they realised it, so they must task the provider with delivering a quality service that makes a real difference to business productivity. The more considered and even reticent pace of employers to engage with training can be used to allow space and time for meaningful dialogue that sees training feed in to strategic planning and tangible increases in productivity. All this of course is time consuming and means that the longer the dialogue goes on the longer it is before the Training Provider actually gets paid for their services. But what I believe could come out of this are highly sustainable relationships that will reap rewards for the Work Place, for the Training Company and ultimately for Community.

 The days of Train To Gain’s relentless rears on seats, quick fix mentality when little of real value was achieved, are thankfully a thing of the past. We must all be prepared to adjust the pace and return to ideals driven by a desire to make a difference and by doing so we all stand a greater chance of being winners as Integrity and financial prosperity are not by any means mutually exclusive. In the coming weeks I will explore the role of all stakeholders starting with the employer.  My challenge for them will be to use this new power to best advantage, to get off the fence and to engage with training making it a strategic priority to make it work for them, their employees and ultimately the all-important shareholders.

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