The challenge of delivering a world class apprenticeship framework

Published:  25 September, 2017

Graeme Dryden, APHC’s Technical Services Manager, discusses the challenges involved in creating a new framework for plumbing and heating apprenticeships in England, and explains how industry associations are coming together to set up a new scheme

In 2012, the government implemented a review in England to ensure that vocational apprenticeship schemes deliver the training and skills employers need.

Following the review, it was concluded that wide-ranging reforms to vocational education and training were needed. The review detailed how there was no clear vision or guidance, and that employers and professional organisations, institutes and bodies needed to be involved in developing apprenticeships to be the 'world standard' in vocational training. While this is the aspiration, we are yet to see if the infrastructure put in place can deliver on this.

After receiving the call from both industry and government, an employer group came together that was representative of the whole of industry, from large major contractors to sole traders, including installation companies and service and maintenance employers. APHC, CIPHE and the now-disbanded SummitSkills also joined forces to provide support in the form of development resources, administration and meeting secretarial services.

While government guidance stipulated who can sit on the Employer Group, employers recognised the importance of others and so a Stakeholder Group was set up, which included BPEC, City & Guilds, EAL, JTL, Leicester College, NAPT and Unite the Union. The primary purpose of this group was to provide feedback to allow the Employer Group to make informed decisions.

Although this is a government-led process, it marked the first time that employers were the final sole decision makers, rather than simply being consulted with, in the development of England's domestic plumbing and heating apprenticeship.

Looking at the modern plumbing industry and how it operates in today's economy, it was vital that employers understood the changing demands around technology and working practices, alongside other influences such as ever-changing government policy around energy and the environment. They commissioned qualitative and quantitative research, which included a desk-based review of functional and occupational mapping, National Occupational Standards, surveys and face-to-face consultation with employers via 10 employer workshops.

From this work, it was concluded that due to the nature of plumbing and heating work and how different specialist aspects interlink, the scope for the apprenticeship needed to be as diverse as the industry is, covering all of the skills required across designing, planning, installing, servicing and repairing the breadth of plumbing and domestic heating systems including fuel types and environmental technologies. It was clear that the apprenticeship required there to be a blend of college and work-based learning, to ensure there is breadth and depth of knowledge and skills to satisfy the technical diversity of the occupation. The alternative would be for industry to consider fragmentation of competence. For example, having a sanitary pipework certificate or a central heating certificate, and then the occupation and competence would be linked to these discrete components.

These findings were then required to be detailed in an Apprenticeship Specification, which the government states can be no more than two sides of A4, for review and approval by the Institute of Apprenticeships (IfA). The length of the apprenticeship was originally stipulated to be a fixed 48-month duration, however the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), who were originally responsible for apprenticeship approval, insisted that the exact duration of the apprenticeship could not be dictated.

To this day, the guidance issued by the IFA in their 'How to guide for trailblazers, June 2017' states: "It must include an indication of the likely duration of the apprenticeship: for example, typically 24 months or typically 18 to 24 months. If a range is given, it must not span more than six months. You must not state a minimum or maximum duration". It is for this reason the Apprenticeship Specification quotes "typical duration".

The reasoning given for this is that the duration of an apprenticeship requires there to be flexibility so as not to hold back those capable of achieving earlier, ie: 'the high-flyers'. If the specification didn't quote this, then the Apprenticeship Specification would not have received approval. This is just one stipulation from the SFA (now the IfA). The process involved many stipulations laid down via a detailed specification, which resulted in extensive discussions and negotiations between all parties aimed at delivering a robust Apprenticeship Specification.

As the employer group developed and the work continued, the original employer group identified that a key element of ensuring a high-quality endpoint assessment lay with external quality assurance and how the assessment is delivered in the assessment locations. To deliver this critical component, the employer group re-formed into an employer board, with future responsibilities for external quality assurance and the delivery of the endpoint assessment.

It has been important that both employers and stakeholders, such as Awarding Organisations, understand each other's responsibilities. Employers are only responsible for the endpoint assessment (final test) within the apprenticeship, the apprenticeship standard and apprenticeship plan. Awarding Organisations are responsible for the qualification delivery, along with quality and rigour of assessment of the qualifications.

Quality of teaching has been an issue for employers, along with other issues such as an oversupply of new entrants to the industry through short courses and full-time college-delivered courses and qualifications. This was explored with employers during the face-to-face consultation but, frustratingly, government education policy is designed to meet other social demands and needs, which is not always what is best for the plumbing and domestic heating industry.

The plumbing and domestic heating industry is not alone, as other skills-based occupations have similar issues and concerns. Frustratingly, government education policy and the social agenda does not appear to take on board views of employers or wider industry to influence this in any way and so oversupply continues to undermine the important work being done by employers around the apprenticeship delivery. Here, much-needed change is required influencing the whole of the education policy, of which plumbing pays a very small part.

The Assessment Plan was finally submitted and approved in March 2017, with conditions. In April 2017, the responsibility for the Assessment Plan was transferred from the SFA to the IfA, which was formed by the Government to be an employer-led organisation to look after apprenticeships, skills and vocational qualifications. The Board is currently working to meet these conditions through to satisfaction, however feedback is again very subjective and without reference to the guidance documentation issued.

Graeme Dryden, APHC's Technical Services Manager, who has been involved in this project from its inception, said: "The process remains one of the most challenging education projects that I have worked on. Those involved in this project should be congratulated for giving up their time to review documentation, attend meetings and provide their valued feedback for free and without receiving expenses. Their only motivation is to increase the quality of apprenticeship and skills delivery in the plumbing and heating industry.

"Despite the barriers raised by the IfA, the key competences that employers laid down and the key vision from industry will be delivered through this apprenticeship, including a rigorous endpoint assessment that tests theoretical knowledge and applied practical knowledge and performance, albeit within the IfA vision for endpoint assessment delivery. Achieving the endpoint assessment will mean the apprentice and their employer can be proud of that achievement."

He concluded: "The Board found it surprising that even though there are some very vocal individuals using social media to voice their opinions about the Board, no applications came forward from them. This feeling is compounded today as social media is very interesting at this time and, while we support a lot of the comments and issues being raised, we feel it is time to engage and bring solutions to the table. We welcome discussions and I invite interested parties to register to get involved to either be part of the Board or attend our regional employer seminars.

"Finally, I'd like to make it clear that APHC and CIPHE receive no funding for the secretarial support and work they do. APHC uses its own financial resource and it hasn't - and won't - receive any financial gain from this work."

Plumbers and heating engineers can contact Graeme Dryden on 0121 711 50 30 or via email on training@aphc.co.uk.

Scope and Responsibility

The Board is made up of six qualified and experienced employers from the plumbing and domestic heating industry:

  • Jeffrey Lee, National Apprentices Manager at Mitie Technical Facilities Management (chair)
  • Paul Hull, Managing Director at The Industria Group
  • Nigel Davies, Operations Manager at Heating Services at Certas Energy UK
  • Gerald Mack, Owner and Senior Engineer at Electrical & Heating Maintenance Services
  • David Merrett, Managing Director at Merretts Heating Services
  • Edward Padgett, Director at Arthur Padgett

The Board is responsible for ensuring there is industry adoption and compliance with the approved Quality Assurance Standards of the Plumbing and Domestic Heating Technician Apprenticeship Curriculum and Assessment Plan.

The Quality Assurance Standards outline the skills plumbing and domestic heating apprentices are expected to have to meet the needs of employers. This will ensure that plumbing and heating apprenticeships are able to deliver the key skills required, while helping safeguard the long-term development of the English plumbing and heating industry.

The Board is not responsible for, and does not have a remit to set or control, the number of people undertaking the Plumbing and Domestic Heating Technician Apprenticeship.

The Board is only responsible for the Quality Assurance Standards of the Curriculum and Assessment Plan of the Plumbing and Domestic Heating Technician Apprenticeship and does not have any influence or governance over the delivery of any other plumbing and heating course or qualification.

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