Taking ownership of apprenticeships

Ofsted picks up a lot of flak from hard-pressed headteachers. If you’ve been close to a school as I have when the postman delivers the news of an imminent inspection, you’ll know that it’s rarely a welcome visit. Years ago, as chairman of governors of a rural Norfolk primary school, staff gasped when I arranged for the inspector to walk down the road to my office to interview me as part of an inspection. I guess I’ve always challenged the status quo!

But Sir Michael Wilshaw’s most recent broadside was aimed not at schools, but the apprenticeship sector. And as one would expect from a man raised a postman’s son in gritty South London, it pulls no punches. ‘The rise in poor quality courses has devalued the apprentice brand,’ it says.

More importantly perhaps, the report rightly points out that smaller employers are often put off by the ‘fear of becoming mired in bureaucracy’. On this front it seems the government learned nothing from the poor take up of BIS Growth Vouchers where a very clunky claim process meant that only 7,500 of the 20,000 £2,000 vouchers awarded were claimed.

From what I hear, the process suggested by which employers will be expected to commission an apprenticeship provider promises to be equally off-putting. Putting the employer in the driving seat is the right answer; expecting them to be able to drive a lumbering tank, rather than what they’re used to is simply not going to work!

Oddly, Wilshaw is also critical of his own organisation, albeit in a roundabout way. Yes, secondary schools don’t do enough to promote apprenticeships as a viable alternative to university. Why? Because the inspection culture they live under rates university places as the ultimate goal, with an apprenticeship simply a tolerable second best for the less able student.

Now a few years ago I was invited back to my former secondary moderns school to speak and present prizes. It had been more than 40 years since I left, unhappy, demotivated and with only a handful of average grade O Levels. Even then I didn’t conform or fit the system, so was nudged to one side and dismissed as thick. (Since then I’ve learned a lot, not least that I have an IQ of 155!)

What that evening showed me was that young people with attitude are still pushed aside. That smaller employers in that town find recruitment difficult and apprenticeships a nightmare (it’s an hour by bus to the nearest college!) Most importantly of all, I realised that unless I did something, nobody would. But isn’t that what social entrepreneurs do?

And so for all the right reasons, I founded social enterprise Swarm Apprenticeships. We put the employer first, not the government. We use enterprise qualifications to help everyone see clearly the financial return on investment young people can give their employers.

A recent visitor from the Skills Funding Agency described us as ‘three years ahead of our time’. Reading Sir Michael’s challenge for employers to take ownership, organise themselves and stop waiting for others to put the right structures in place, I wonder if our wait is almost over!


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