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Overcoming apprenticeship challenges

20 May 2019

The National Skills Academy for Food and Drink (NSAFD) recently released a ‘State of the Nation’ report, which looks at the health of the UK’s food and drink workforce and the impact of the Apprenticeship Levy on the food and supply chain. 

Led by Justine Fosh, group CEO of National Skills Academy for Food & Drink (NSAFD) and assessment organisation Occupational Awards Limited (OAL), the report was commissioned to inform the work of the new Food & Drink Sector Council. It looks at the specific skills issues across the food sector supply chain and examines the challenges and barriers that are preventing greater uptake of apprenticeships.

The report surveyed trade organisations and representative organisations from across the food and drink supply chain. Although it acknowledges that, broadly speaking, the Government’s reforms are ‘working well’ across the food supply chain, NSAFD says it is critical that SMEs do not get left behind.   

Commenting on the report Fosh said: “Overall, the new system has been broadly welcomed by the food and drink sector, however across the board the consensus is that non-levy paying companies are missing out on the opportunities.
“Government reforms have sought to put control of the system – including the means to pay for apprenticeships – in the hands of employers, however this is not the case for SMEs. SMEs do not pay the levy and so don’t have their ‘own’ funding pots. They are reliant on providers who have been successful in gaining special contracts to work with them. Not all of these providers have the specialist capability to deliver an apprenticeship to food businesses and this mismatch can result in SMEs being unable to access the new standards.”

The NSAFD supports an employer driven quality initiative to recognise high quality food and drink providers as ‘Industry Approved’ which goes some way to providing the industry with a reassurance about capability. Recent research identified that 96% of employers would prefer to work with these providers, as they understand that they have been through a rigorous approvals process demonstrating their credentials.

In response to the report, the NSAFD, on behalf of the Skills Working Group are convening a specialist group to look at how provision can better serve the needs of the food supply chain.

Fosh continued: “We already know what great provision looks like as we have examples of Industry Approved providers who are already operating with smaller businesses. Through the forum, however, we aim to develop some tangible and specific solutions to further improving the quality and availability of apprenticeships for all.”

Further research into the skills requirements of the wider food chain is already underway by the group, championed by the Food & Drink Federation. The research project brings together the view of the entire food chain, plus official Government data and business insights to create a research report which will provide a clearer understanding of the labour force across the whole food and drink supply chain and will support the groups work with Government on future workforce planning.

Looking back
The report provided some background to the new apprenticeship system. It pointed out that the reforms started in 2013. The fundamental tenet of the change was to put the employer in the driving seat of apprenticeships by giving them a more significant role in the design and delivery of apprenticeships. Though full responsibility only came with the routing of funding to the employer, through the levy. 

The system initially required employers to come together to design a single standard for an occupational apprenticeship that could be given to providers to deliver against. Any group of employers was encouraged to come together and form a ‘Trailblazer’ group, with the initial idea being that employers may even compete to design apprenticeships. 
A major aspect of the reforms at this point was about making apprenticeships more consistent in output, so that one company could take on an apprentice trained at another and be confident that all apprentices would have the same knowledge and skills and demonstrate the right behaviours required for the occupation. How they arrived at this point, the training itself, was no longer regulated by qualifications or specifications and was left to the provider and employer to determine, thus incentivising innovative delivery and opening up the market. 
It was subsequently identified that there needed to be a mechanism for ensuring that apprentices had reached the standard. Employer groups developed assessment plans to enable new End Point Assessment Organisations (EPAOs) to test the apprentices to validate their competency, and indeed to grade it, according to employer determined grading. 

The biggest single disruptor came in 2016, with the announcement of the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, which would enable employers in England to get back their taxed contributions to spend on apprenticeships. Each apprenticeship would be assigned a funding band, which was the maximum funding rate that could be paid for from the company returned funding, in the form of a digital account. More could be spent if an employer sought to benefit, but this had to be from the training budget not from the contributions. At the same time, the previously available apprenticeship frameworks had their funding levels reduced. This made it financially more interesting for a provider to offer the new apprenticeship standards than the previous frameworks.

The report also highlighted a number of obstacles relating to apprenticeship providers. These included: 

• Quality: There is a sense that there is a highly variable quality of delivery in the marketplace. Providers don’t apply to deliver a specific standard but apply to deliver ‘apprenticeships’, and so there is limited guidance for employers around good provision for specific standards. Many providers are slow to make the change and try to shoehorn old ways of working, or delivering old programmes, into new standards. Companies buy provision on a standard-by-standard basis. Some parts of the supply chain benefit from voluntary schemes such as People First’s ‘Gold’ standard and the NSAFD’s ‘Industry Approved’ quality mark. These schemes provide additional voluntary quality assurance to the official Register within a market-oriented landscape.

• Availability of standards: Employers have to make do with standards because providers are offering  them rather than getting the standards that they want. This can be true where there are new standards and where there is a requirement for specific cohorts of learners from an industry.

• Information to employers: Providers, are the major source of information for many employers, particularly smaller ones. Providers will sell what they can deliver, and there are a number of instances of providers recommending apprenticeships that are generic, or have been superseded by new standards that are more appropriate. Whether through a lack of awareness of what is a constantly changing landscape, or through deliberate targeting of what they can offer, employers are not always ‘informed purchasers’.

• Turmoil:  There is considerable turmoil in the system. As a result of the changing financial model and ongoing quality assurance implementation through Ofsted, providers are becoming insolvent quickly. This is impacting learners who are studying and employers who will have to find a new provider. Whilst it is vital that poor quality and poor practices are identified, it is observed that there is significant turmoil.

A copy of the report can be downloaded from

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