Apprenticeship reforms – From a tick to a curve

By Tom Cheek, Apprenticeship Lead at the Science Council

In education the only constant is change.  Within this blog I will be considering the impact and response of apprenticeship reforms implemented since 2017 from the perspective of a training provider.  What were the challenges?  What has been the impact?  Most importantly, has it resulted in a better learning experience for the apprentice, more opportunity for social mobility and better meet the needs of industry and employers?

When delivering frameworks there was a need to ensure compliance of qualifications that on completion led to the achievement of the apprenticeship itself.  Delivery could be heavily influenced by external verification of the awarding bodies.  As part of this quality assurance there was often strict and rigid approaches enforced on training providers.  This could result in a ‘workbook heavy’ approach.  It ticked the criteria boxes but did it challenge the apprentice to contextualise and have the ability to make new meaning of their knowledge and skills?  Where funding and course durations were tight it could be difficult to offer this broader learning experience.

This approach to quality from awarding bodies secured a base-line, but it also had the risk of a result of too much focus on ‘assessment of learning’, measuring that certain knowledge and skills had been met, examples including large lists of written questions or observations at work.  Sufficiency was another challenge.  For some awarding bodies, meeting the criteria once was deemed suitable, for others multiple coverage was required.  A tick in the box confirmed an underpinning knowledge or a ‘be able to’ skill had been demonstrated.  That tick could be applied in month 1 of delivery.  Could that tick offer enough confidence that the learner had a deep understanding of theory of their occupation by apprenticeship end?

With apprenticeship standards it was clearly established that it required more emphasis on assessment ‘for’ learning.  This could be delivered through challenging the learner to explore a topic of their industry, creating something new through an assignment, presenting their evaluated findings and reflecting on the learning experience.  The purpose of the assessment feedback was now to identify the strengths and areas for development, building (over time) the apprentices knowledge that facilitated their development of skills and behaviours at work.

The measurement of the development of knowledge, skills and behaviours (KSB’s) became a higher priority.  Without the structure that qualifications can offer, there had to be methodology for tracking and plotting the curve of learning.  The response being more emphasis on initial assessment which was re-assessed at points throughout the on-programme delivery to monitor an apprentice’s progress and distance travelled in learning.

Additionally, bespoke internal learning aims were created within ePortfolios.  This required subject specialists to review the occupational standard and assessment plans of the apprenticeship and expand the KSB’s to ensure a broad and rich learning experience.  This was an important aspect of the curriculum development to form an expansive and occupational relevant learning plan and allow for detailed tracking of learning progress.

For example, the standard may refer to health and safety as a general requirement for knowledge.  The expansion may then lead to learning outcomes covering: biosecurity; risk assessments; emergency action plans; legislation; personal protective equipment to name a few.  Without creating this broader list of learning requirements there could be the risk of a delivery too narrow.

No longer could assessments completed in early months (as often delivered in frameworks) be relied upon.  Apprentices needed to develop and build their KSB’s to the point of independent assessment, showing a growth of learning over that time.

The move to standards required a significant growth in workplace mentor engagement, often a key challenge for training providers.  The developments included a triangulation of provision where the mentor was able to support their apprentice in developing skills and behaviours within the workplace.  For this to be delivered effectively there was the need to develop the mentoring skills as ultimately they had to agree that their apprentice was ready to pass through gateway and access end point assessment.  Financial considerations are required as a re-sit for standards is significant.  This increased need acted as a driver to develop an onboarding mentoring course that required completion by the identified workplace mentors as a pre-requisite for enrollment.

For some of the more technical provision there was an additional requirement of investment in infrastructure to allow apprentices working at small to medium sized businesses the ability to access equipment and facilities that may not be available within their own work setting.  All of which highlighted the importance of individual learning plans including the identification off-the-job activity.  Off-the-job is paramount to ensure learners can have the space to investigate content, create meaning and identify application to their performance away from the pressures of day to day work.

As curriculum was developed and provision self-assessed, there was a clearly a need to also assess an apprentices digital literacy and independent learning skills.  Yes, apprentices often were confident with technology in terms of streaming or apps, but outside of these often highly intuitive tools there was a lack of skill.  Early intervention and support was required to develop their use of the digital world for learning.  This could be with examples such as:  How to research and find reliable sources of information?  How to develop their own personal learning network and how to reflect?  These skills are paramount to ensure individuals can consider their thoughts, views, experiences and values, compare to others and challenge their stance and create new meaning.  Why do they do certain things?  Is that fit for and aligned to their industry?  What was factually accurate one day may be outdated the next.  Apprentices need to develop life-long learning skills that allow them to adapt to this change, be occupationally relevant and transferrable to the diversity of work.

Equally the skills of staff had to be addressed from the move to frameworks to standards.  In many cases the core of their role changing from being an ‘assessor’ to a ‘learning coordinator’.  For example they may assess ‘for learning’ to identify those knowledge, skills and behaviours that need development and assess ‘of learning’ to measure those apprentices ready for end point assessment.  There was also the need for industry upskilling.  Delivery staff may be experienced educators, but the impact of this can be staff who have a strong pedagogical approach but lacking the ‘finger on the pulse’ direction and developments due to years being outside of industry.

The methodology for end point assessment was a key consideration for curriculum development.  Right from the beginning of the provision, apprentices were exposed to those types of assessments.  For example, if they needed to undertake a professional discussion as part of their end point assessment, activity was included that developed their ability to discuss and debate their work.  If multiple choice tests were part of their end point then opportunities to test their knowledge with this model was applied regularly throughout the on-programme aspect of the apprenticeship.  However, care was taken not to teach to those requirements in isolation but instead develop a depth of learning that allowed the learner to apply in different scenarios and environments.  The ultimate driver being the need of delivering high quality learning opportunities paired with the readiness of end point assessment.

Alongside the primary qualifications in both frameworks and some standards, there was a need to consider how best to deliver Functional Skills, especially with standards where apprentices could not reach end point without them.  For many years focus was too heavy on functional skills themselves.  When the vision was adjusted to consider the needs to develop English and maths more broadly it allowed for provision that was aligned to the occupational use.  This encouraged the apprentice and their mentor to be more engaged as the content made more sense and was contextualized into their world of work.  Mapping exercises were undertaken to recognise where these skills were required.  For example, for the use of numbers apprentices may develop their ability in measuring dilution rates or calculating body mass index.  This collaboration of vocational relevance along with underpinning principles led to a far improved awareness and priority of importance by apprentices, employers and delivery staff that led to significant improvements in 1st time and overall pass rates.

The reforms created space.  That space has both positive and negative connotations:  Positively curriculum can be created that delivers a full and expansive learning experience, delivered through collaboration, activity, demonstration and reflection.  For this to happen there needs to be a skilled and detailed plan that forms the breadth of learning outcomes.  Without this there is the risk of a limited provision too focused on the KSB’s.

Additionally, for standards to be a success they need to offer kudos and confidence in their coverage to offer recognition.  This can be achieved through KSB’s that are detailed sufficiently so to support curriculum development by training providers and also aligned to the respective industry professional standards.  Alternatively by the delicate and light touch inclusion of national occupational standards (that offer specific criteria in: performance; knowledge; values; behaviours and skills) it may offer a solution where the combination gives benefits of a liberated learning plan but with the security and confidence that qualifications can deliver.

Note – Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

Read Tom’s other blogs here.

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