Interviewing Skills Minister Nick Boles at 1 Victoria Street seemed appropriate.
This 10-storey, 1,000 square feet of shining glass and steel is home to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and a host of other offices and shops in the heart of Victoria and it is where Boles does much of his skills thinking.
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Boles had a friendly, relaxed manner and he sported his usual casual appearance with grey trousers and a slightly crumpled, white shirt – not the look of your average Conservative minister, but he is not ‘average’ and he’s been at the heart of many of the recent attempts to modernise the party.
The Conservatives have made bold assertions regarding apprenticeships in recent years and one of their most confident claims must be their target of three million apprentices by 2020. The leading expert on skills and the labour market, Baroness Wolf of Dulwich called them “a mad and artificial political target which risks undermining the reputation of apprenticeships.”
Boles’ response was suitably diplomatic yet direct: “I, and the government, are huge fans of Alison Wolf – she has been an inspiration for many of our reforms but I do totally reject that suggestion.
“If you look at the figures and at the number of apprentices per thousand in population here and elsewhere in Europe, even if we hit three million we will still be down roughly half the number of any of our competitor countries and they manage to have schemes, which are generally viewed as being higher quality, and they have more of them, so there is absolutely no conflict between quantity and quality, and if anything they are neutrally reinforcing.”
Boles used the new employers’ levy to further counter Wolf’s attack, arguing that employers are paying the levy, which he described as a tax but, unlike other taxes, organisations can spend it on apprenticeship training.
“She might have had a point if we hadn’t been introducing the levy, but in the context of the levy, I am very confident that we can hit three million and make them better than they currently are.”
When asked about ways to measure the return on investment, Boles explained how the government planned to assess the new standards: “There is defensive quality control and an overall measurement of impact.”
He went on to clarify, “Defensive quality control is that the levy can only be spent on an approved quality standard, on a training provider who is on the register of providers which means they are subject to Ofsted inspections. That is the defensive baseline.
“Also we now have the data to link people’s earnings with their education and skills data. We already know that, with existing standards, a Level 2 apprenticeship, on average, increases people’s income by 11 per cent three to five years later and a Level 3 apprenticeship on average by 16 per cent.
In the next few years, with a bit of luck, the data linked to apprenticeships will become a little more granular and we will be able to say that, for those who took this standard, on average, this was the impact. By the end of this parliament I would hope that we will have very good data on different standards and what impact they have made.”
The new Trailblazer initiative was introduced by the government to ensure the standards were employer-led and Boles readily admitted that some sectors were doing better than others. “There are some gaps, but some of that is because we don’t think the standard is good enough.
“It’s important for an apprenticeship to have broad transferable skills”
We reject applications because they are not testing enough or too narrowly defined because it’s important for an apprenticeship to have broad transferable skills not just those specific to that employer at that time.”
He explained that the introduction of the levy will change the dynamics: “When you have employers who know they have to pay this money in, and there is not already a standard to suit them, then that is a pretty dramatic incentive to ensure that the right standard is developed.
“Over the length of this parliament we are going to migrate from the existing frameworks to the new standards. We are not saying that in 2017 we are going to have a wholesale replacement, but by the end of the parliament we will have switched off all the old frameworks and be working with these employer-led standards.”
So given its full steam ahead for the government’s new standards, how are they going to manage and assess the quality of the new apprenticeships that, according to government, are going to grow quickly over the next few years?
Boles seemed confident that Ofsted was up to the job: “Ofsted has a pretty well developed process in place for assessing training providers and, with the start of the levy, employers will be given the money to spend with the provider. Providers will not receive direct government funding from the money raised by the levy.”
The funding for schools, colleges and providers will come direct from the Skills Funding Agency and when Ofsted reports poor provider practice their contract, ultimately, can be cancelled and they are removed from the accredited list of providers.
Boles seemed resigned to the fact that there would be some poor performance. “There are probably thousands of training providers and there is constantly a bit of a churn and unfortunately it is life. People do not always maintain the quality that they should and we need a method to weed them out.”
You cannot improve skills without factoring in the role of education. When asked whether more could be done to engage Trailblazing organisations with education, Boles was cautious. “A lot of companies do great work, but there is always more that can be done.
There are some things that can be done that are very useful. For example, recently it was announced that schools would be required to open up to allow FE colleges and apprenticeship employers to come in and talk to young people before they make their [exam] choices because there is some evidence that some schools are reluctant to do that as they want to hang onto the people, to keep them in their sixth form.
“The new careers company is trying to roll out the idea that every school should have an enterprise adviser, a current or recently retired local executive who will be in charge of helping to plan the programme, provide inspiration and work experience with a focus on the local business community.
“Definitely more could be done but there is some good work being done, like Speakers for Schools, Primary Futures all sorts of different programmes that do great work but we know there are a lot of schools who don’t have much of this stuff at all.”
Boles is keen to ensure that younger pupils are kept engaged with a variety of subjects. He mentioned twice in the interview the need to keep girls engaged with STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
He wants to ensure they are not put off pursuing subjects like maths and science or be misinformed about the variety of opportunities in engineering. He is keen to get rid of outdated preconceptions that hold up many young people.
Commenting on the lack of STEM skills, Boles said: “There are a lot organisations working to change attitudes, like STEMNET, but it is an uphill struggle to change attitudes. Young people go home and their parents give them outdated views on what a certain set of qualifications leads to and what type of jobs are out there and we need to tackle that.”
Aligning education and skills does seem to be the aim of government, but is it happening? Boles is confident that things are improving. “We would recognise that we have, for a long time, boasted about our reputation for academic education but we have rarely been able to similarly boast about our system for technical and vocational education.
“People look to Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavian countries for that, not from the UK and that is something we want to correct. We are mainly doing this through the apprenticeship programmes and reforms of technical and professional education in colleges where it links with the schools stuff.”
Boles seems to be an advocate of the EBac (English Baccalaureate) as he strongly favours a rounded approach to education – something that does not quite fit with an emphasis on more vocational and technical education and training. He dismisses suggestions that the EBac is some kind of distraction for students taking a technical route.
“We are trying to say there are fundamentals you need to master. Around those fundamentals, you can develop your own interests to take you in a particular direction but there is a core and, even if you end up doing humanities, you should still do a single science.
“Or if you are doing engineering, you should still understand about history or geography. Put the core, or foundation, in place and then we should be better at supporting not just those going off to university after A levels, but all those going into a career after an apprenticeship or other technical professional qualification.”
When asked whether the crippling debt of student loans might put off some potential students from university and encourage them into apprenticeships, Boles remained positive and does not think the higher apprenticeships would entice that many high fliers away from university, but agreed that some may decide they have another route to their desired career which did not involve incurring a student loan debt – he seemed sure the numbers would be small.
There are a lot organisations working to change attitudes
He felt that ensuring that those who are currently not in a position to get an apprenticeship because they have not got the basic and or behavioural employability skills have opportunities to access an apprenticeship. He was adamant that apprenticeships must not become elite-only programmes.
Boles said, “One of the major disagreements with the opposition during the election was their proposal that there shouldn’t be any more Level 2 apprenticeships, that all apprenticeships should be Level 3 and above.
“I am very opposed to that because, actually, Level 2 is a very important level because many do the Level 2 construction, hairdressing, business administration and so on and we don’t want people to feel there is a cap and they can’t go further.
“There has to be a progression so I think we can ward against what you rightly raise as a proper concern by saying to people on Level 2 programmes, and even traineeships, that if you’re not ready yet at 16 there will be an opportunity for you later on.”
Clearly the government’s commitment to its objective of three million by 2020 is very real. Imposing a target that 2.3 per cent of public sector workers should be engaged in an apprenticeship further shows that pledge.
When asked why there was a need to impose this goal, Boles replied: “Many people have a very old fashioned view of apprenticeships, but they are now discovering that you can do almost any job by way of an apprenticeship.
“This new measure applies to all public sector organisations employing over 250 people,” Boles explained. “Some of those organisations will be paying the new apprenticeship levy so they already have an incentive to do it.
“We want all public sector organisations to be thinking about it in their recruitment policies as the public sector lags behind the private sector in apprenticeships. Ultimately, taxpayers’ money is paying for them, so it is a very important goal for the government to promote this opportunity as widely as possible.”
The government has high hopes for its apprenticeship policy and it does seem to make sense to put the employer as the very heart of the programme – imposing the levy is a way of reducing government spending while giving employers a vested interest in making the standards work.
Boles seems confident that there will be enough data to show their success by the end of this parliament. However, this seems a tall order given the nature of our fast-changing working environments – only time will tell.