Blogs + think pieces

Giving apprentices a voice

11th October 2017

Apprentices have a lot to offer policy and debate about apprenticeships – so why don’t we listen to them, asks Shakira Martin

In its 2015 General Election manifesto, the Conservative Party boldly pledged to deliver three million apprentices by 2020. Since then, we have seen the creation of a huge amount of policy and legislation focusing on apprenticeships: on how apprenticeships will be funded, what makes a quality apprenticeship and what constitutes on- and off-the-job training – to name but a few.

In the last few years we have heard an awful lot about apprenticeships, but we’ve actually heard very little about or from apprentices.

There are three things that make up an apprenticeship: a training provider, an employer and an apprentice. Yet, the sector and the government spend most of their time listening and responding to the needs of employers and training providers; very little consideration is given to apprentices. Time after time, government overstates the investment made by employers, while underestimating the massive commitment that apprentices themselves make.

Apprentices take on poverty wages and invest time, effort and energy in their training and work. But they are consistently denied a voice and are not given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to their education and training.

For the past year, the National Union of Students has been campaigning to ensure that there is an apprentice representative on the board of the Institute for Apprenticeships. We believe that apprentices can offer a perspective that employers and training providers can’t. It’s apprentices who are actually experiencing work and learning, applying for jobs and experiencing the outcomes of their apprenticeship, not employers or training providers. Yet despite the value that apprentices can offer to the board, they are denied a seat.

Why is this? The government says there can’t be an apprentice on the board because of things such as governance responsibility and press scrutiny, and because the board needs to represent the interests of all apprentices while a single apprentice ‘would be unlikely to speak for all’.

This is particularly hard to swallow. The Office for Students, a similar body to the Institute for Apprenticeships, but for higher education, has a student representative, and rightly so. The government evidently believes that one person can represent students’ interests, so why can’t an apprentice do the same? Does the government consider FE learners to be less able or intelligent than HE students? Or that their education doesn’t equip them with the skills necessary to sit on a board?

And we’ve seen that even when apprentices are given then opportunity to have their voices heard, they’re often not listened to. The apprentice panel at the Institute for Apprenticeships recently had an invitation to present to the board withdrawn. On the face of it, this may seem a small inconvenience but when you’re an apprentice it’s just another instance of people making decisions that directly affect your education without deeming your opinion worthwhile.

This isn’t just bad for policy, it’s bad for the development of apprentices too. Employers look for their apprentices to be articulate, confident and able to participate effectively in quality improvement and review. Ensuring that apprentices have a voice nationally, locally and in their workplace contributes to this.

Training providers also need to ensure they listen to apprentices. Apprentices, after all, are the ones with direct experience of combining work and learning, and they are the ones best placed to assess the success or otherwise of an apprenticeship. Listening to learners is central to educational leadership that is ethical, informed and based on trust and collaboration.

Apprentices want to be listened to and want to be taken seriously, not only to make sure decisions are made only once the fullest picture is drawn but also to safeguard their futures. At the end of the day, it is apprentices who will pay the price for bad decision-making.

The validity of apprentice voice is something the NUS takes seriously and will continue to speak out about. Apprentice voice improves the quality of apprenticeships. Apprentice voice means better and better-informed decisions.

Shakira Martin is President of the National Union of Students

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