Apprenticeships are a hot topic in education and with the Augar review of post-18 education and funding expected to recommend the expansion of higher-level technical provision the spotlight is shining even brighter on the impact of apprenticeships on individuals, employers and the economy.
It is almost three years since the government rolled out the degree apprenticeship model and while to us, as educators, the benefits are obvious – they provide an earn as you learn opportunity, are co-designed with industry to maximise the benefits for both students and employers and can be paid for from levy contributions – there is still a degree of work required to illustrate to students and employers the positive impact they can make.
Failure to launch
A study by the Social Mobility Commission has shown that people under the age of 25 are least likely to see the value in apprenticeships. Similarly, recent data from the Sutton Trust indicates that parents are still more likely to recommend a traditional university route. These are the perceptions we need to change.
So, with the renewed emphasis on apprenticeships, the myriad marketing campaigns from our sector, the media commentary and the increasing numbers of apprentices acting as advocates, why is this still the case?
A full-time university degree pathway for young people has become a socially embedded norm, which has perhaps led to preconceptions that apprenticeships are in some way an inferior career choice. There have also been challenges over the quality of provision, thus damaging their value. Historically, apprentices were often let down by mediocre programmes of study. Compare this to the higher education sector, driven by metrics, rankings and league tables, and you can see why apprenticeships may be considered to lack rigour.
When degree apprenticeships were launched in 2015, we immediately recognised this as a critical piece of our commitment to enhancing skills development, and in particular driving economic growth in the Tees Valley. Higher and Degree Apprenticeships are now key offerings at Teesside University, with qualifications in health, digital technology, business management, science, engineering and design.
In January this year, Teesside University was among the first higher education institutions in the country to have its higher apprenticeship provision subject to a full inspection by Ofsted, and we were rated “Outstanding” across the board.
In the higher education sector, where institutions rightly govern their own standards, it is understandable that Ofsted inspection could be perceived as intrusive interference. The process is rigorous and can be daunting, but is certainly a clear demonstration that an apprenticeship is a quality choice. We believe that the effort is worth it to demonstrate to students and employers that apprenticeships are a meaningful way to develop higher-level skills.
Advice for others
Here is our advice for colleagues preparing for a similar inspection.
- Ensure your apprenticeship provision is clearly part of an institutional approach and narrative. Clear links to the university strategic plan will demonstrate that you are invested for the long-term, not simply jumping on a new potential source of income.
- You will be asked to put forward a nominee to lead on the inspection and it can be tempting to choose a senior leader. Instead, nominate someone who knows the course provision and the student journey inside out. Ofsted is interested in the student over and above the policies and processes.
- Think about the language you use and take time to do some jargon-busting with the inspection team. University terminology does not necessarily translate across to inspectors unfamiliar with the assumptions and culture of universities. Don’t be afraid to question the inspectors to ensure you have a common understanding.
- Be prepared to show where problems and issues have occurred and how you have addressed these. New forms of provision will inevitably involve a learning curve, and correcting course demonstrates that you have the capability to enhance the student/apprentice experience.
- Know your data inside out, and make sure you have the right people available to answer any questions Ofsted may have. The inspection needs to be a priority and time made to present the evidence, introduce apprentices and employers to the inspection team and to respond promptly to unanticipated requests.
- Spend some time evidencing how Maths and English skills are developed in the course provision, and evidence this. Ofsted wants to see these subjects considered separately, rather than embedded within a learning framework.
It is imperative that the higher education sector develops a model of provision for higher level skills and the government is right to demand swift and decisive action in delivering this agenda for our regions. Embracing the potential of higher and degree apprenticeships, and demonstrating the quality of our offer, is the right strategic choice.