Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week, an alliance of experts is aiming to restore learning to the heart of the programme
In the build-up to the general election, hardly a day goes by without a politician talking about how many apprenticeships they will create if voted into office. We should be delighted that this pathway is gaining recognition. So why am I uneasy?
Maybe it’s because I remember the “50 per cent should go to university” pledge of the first Blair government. This figure, like the promise of more apprenticeships, was a general aspiration that distracted us from whether it was desirable or deliverable. My unease is compounded when I hear Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw insisting that apprenticeships “must have parity of esteem with A-levels”. I want to agree, but I know this will only happen when we understand the pedagogy of apprenticeships and stop playing political games with the numbers.
Today’s apprenticeships are located in a workplace context with opportunities for off-the-job learning. They involve a variety of interactions with people who are skilled in a chosen profession. Apprenticeship is both an educational brand and a way of learning.
Sign of the times
In the Middle Ages these two meanings were blurred. Apprentices (boys only) would live with their master and his family for seven years. This individual was responsible for the apprentice’s technical competence and his moral development.
An apprenticeship is a special kind of job with inbuilt learning, designed to prepare an individual for future employment and active citizenship. But too often we think of apprenticeships as just being about skills and readiness for work. We need to be much more expansive and ambitious than this if apprenticeship is to compete with other educational routes.
City & Guilds, the 157 Group of colleges and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers have created an alliance dedicated to gathering evidence about vocational education. In our most recent research, Remaking Apprenticeships, we propose six desirable outcomes for anyone undertaking an apprenticeship:
1. Routine expertise: reliable skill in an occupation.
2. Resourcefulness: the capacity to think and act in new situations.
3. Craftsmanship: pride and an ethic of excellence.
4. Functional literacies: literacy, numeracy, digital and graphical.
5. A businesslike attitude: customer- and client-focused, entrepreneurial and aware of value for money.
6. Wider skills for growth: the disposition and wider skills needed for a lifetime of learning and change.
Too often apprenticeships simply focus on the first, fourth and fifth of these outcomes because they are easier to teach and assess than the other three. But it is these overlooked qualities that can make apprentices distinctive.
Look and learn
Apprenticeships are currently being overhauled by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which has called for a “radical reform programme that will make apprenticeships in England the best in the world”. To achieve this ambition, BIS is essentially trying to simplify the system and give employers greater ownership.
But there is an astonishing omission in the new specifications: there is almost no mention of learning or the learning processes apprentices need to experience. This cannot be wise. In our research, we have found strong evidence for the effectiveness of a variety of teaching and learning methods – a blend of different approaches will almost always need to be used.
Furthermore, we suggest three key features of apprenticeships that require attention. The first is that they take place both on and off the job, so we need to decide what is learned where. Second, they involve learning from and with others, so where apprentices are in small organisations we need to think about how they access a larger community of practice. And third, it is essential that the processes of learning are visible and clear, because we know this is important for all teaching. These three features will help to ensure that apprentices understand why they are doing what they are doing, and will foster effective collaboration between the people supporting them.
BIS also says that “learners must demand high-quality pedagogy”. Indeed, we should go further. Educational psychologist Lee S Shulman coined a concept called “signature pedagogy”. A signature pedagogy encapsulates the essence of a particular occupation or profession, so the signature pedagogy of engineering, for example, would involve making things and making things work better using the engineering design process – problem-finding, designing, testing, improving and so on.
Our alliance believes that each apprenticeship has its own signature pedagogy – a blend of learning methods that will work best. We hope that our research will stimulate debate, promote practical action and encourage collaboration. Above all, we have an unshakeable desire to put learning back at the heart of apprenticeship reform.
Published in TES magazine on 6 March, 2015 – https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=11006626