In the ‘How to’ guide for Trailblazer groups, the Institute for Apprenticeships says:
The government wants employers to be at the centre of the process for designing and delivering apprenticeships. This is why apprenticeship standards are designed by groups of employers, known as trailblazers, to meet their own skills needs, those of their broader sector and of the economy more widely.
Whilst there are now circa 600 Apprenticeship Standard’s either up and running or in development, I believe, based on personal experience, and that of many others, that the trailblazer process is all too often synonymous with a process that is seriously disconnected at several points.
Why do I think that the Trailblazers process is so badly flawed? Well, I take issue with at least three main tenets of the above statement, namely:
Employers at the centre of process apprenticeship standards are designed by groups of employers to meet their own skills needs, those of their broader sector
Let us walk through the process in the light of experiences and see if these statements really measure up.
It is true, and a great idea if it was what happened in reality, that only a group of employers can develop a new standard. (well almost true…but I will not discuss here the impact of providers and others in the process). The ten employers required to develop the standard, put in months of detailed work developing the criteria, whilst ensuring that they carefully reflect the needs of their sector.
What happens then?
The draft standard is submitted, and for some reason a mysterious group of I’m not quite sure who (and nor is anyone else, because there is no transparency in this part of the process) sends it back saying that these specific aspects needs to be changed!
They have looked at the standard for maybe an hour or two at most, and knowing better than the employers who have spent months developing it, decide that it isn’t right!
It is resubmitted, with the changes made…only for this panel, whose membership has probably changed a little in the meantime, to come back and require further changes. I know of Trailblazers where this has happened five or six times before final approval is given!
The end result?...
A standard that meets no-ones real needs, and a group of seriously upset employers (if they are still there!) who then never use the standards that they have been involved in developing! I wonder why? It would be fascinating to know what percentage of employers involved in Trailblazers actually recruit to the apprenticeships that they have developed. They all commit to do so at the start, but understandably can become disillusioned along the way.
There are other problems with the process. In some cases there is a serious disconnect between the appointed Relationship Manager, who is there to guide the Trailblazer group, and the panels who make the decisions. In addition to personal experience, I know of several groups whose very supportive RM has guided and encouraged the development in a certain direction, raising hopes of a successful conclusion along the way, only to have the rug pulled out from under them by a panel decision that goes completely against the messages that the RM has been giving. Where is the join up?
Additionally, the policy that there should be minimal overlap between standards, which again in theory is a good one, is being taken to ludicrous extremes. A good example is the Chartered Management Degree Apprenticeship. This is being seen by the IfA as the universal panacea for all management apprenticeships at level 6.. Recently proposed standards, badly needed by their sectors at this level in Forestry, Mining and Retail have all been rejected, because they overlap with the CMDA. Again this undermines the knowledge that employers have in these sectors for their own needs. I look forward to the day when a supermarket/retailer appoint a Store Manager whose previous job was cutting down trees, or blowing up quarries! According to the IfA it should be possible if they have the CMDA!! This is complete nonsense, and shows how policy overwhelms common sense.
So where do we go from here?
Things need to change, and fast. Panels need to be much lighter touch, giving employers real, not synthetic power. RM’s need to be brought much more into the decision-making process. The whole process itself needs speeding up. The concept of no more than three iterations of a draft standard should be brought in.
Good luck to the new CEO of the IfA, when appointed. They have much to do!