Get in, Go Far

Posted on November 17, 2016


Sara Halliday

£8 billion to help build 400,000 affordable homes over the next 5 yearsBy 2020 every home and small business will have had the offer of a new smart meterThe government will make up to £50 million a year available to support the expansion of good or outstanding existing grammar schools …the list goes on

Big investments and ambitious targets are some, if not, the most tried and trusted ways in which politicians and governments can show their support for specific policy priorities and initiatives, and grab headlines. While, for the sectors and organisations affected, these kinds of commitments can drive their direction, focus and ways of working for decades to come.

Apprenticeships are one such example. Despite a decline in the 1980s, over the last thirty years, successive UK governments of all political stripes have sort to champion and revitalise this type of vocational training for young people, with every new administration upping the numbers of apprenticeships they want to see across sectors by the end of this decade. This has culminated in the current Government’s target of creating 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020.

Where Government leads, the Further Education system and business have followed – placing Apprenticeships at the heart of their training and education programmes for young people. And, anecdotally, applications to some leading UK companies’ apprenticeship programmes are considered as competitive as those to Oxbridge universities. 

Yet two recent reports from the IPPR and Policy Exchange have argued that the Government’s three million commitment could actually be harming rather than nurturing the very opportunities for young people it wants to create.

This blog aims to look at these claims, from the Policy Exchange report in particular, in more detail and discuss what they can tell us about designing and measuring the impact of social programmes more widely.

The Policy Exchange study, ‘The Skills We Need, And Why We Don’t Have Them’ criticises the Government’s Apprenticeship programme on two main fronts, first, for its focus on the number rather than quality of apprenticeships created and, second, for a lack of clarity around what success looks like for this programme. 

What’s measured can become what matters

The desire to set targets that are easy to report against can lead to a focus on raw outputs rather than quality or impact. What’s measured can become what matters. For example, Policy Exchange suggests that the Government’s drive for 3 million new apprenticeships might be being achieved at the expense of their effectiveness.

Similar charges have been made against Government’s NHS targets. Also introduced in the late nineties, these measures have, on the one hand, been hailed as an invaluable tool for cutting NHS waiting times, while also criticised for ‘distorting clinical priorities’ – adversely impacting the research and resources devoted to certain medical conditions at a cost to others.

This is an issue that every social initiative needs to address. The desire for simplicity needs to be balanced against the relevance of key performance indicators to what your programme is ultimately trying to achieve. Simple indicators, if they aren’t meaningful, might do more harm than good by distracting from the programme’s purpose. Therefore, the indicators you select should be linked as directly as possible to your programme’s core aims to ensure that they further rather than distract from your goals.

Define success

Secondly, Policy Exchange suggests that the Government’s failure to define from the outset what ‘success’ would look like for its Apprenticeship programme or, even, what should be recognised/count as an Apprenticeship in sufficient detail is a major problem.

This lack of clarity, they argue, is leading to ‘Apprenticeships’ which don’t meet the traditional definitions/standards of what an Apprenticeship should be, and as such are failing to deliver the skills and experience that young people need to boost their employment prospects in the long term.

Essentially, these schemes may still offer some benefits for the young people who take part, but they are unlikely to achieve the sort of transformational change initially promised.

More widely, without a clear vision for success, it’s easy for programmes to deviate from what was intended but very difficult to tell when or if this is taking place. Programmes with loosely worded ambitions– in this case, to “increase the quality of Apprenticeships” – open themselves up to criticism for failing to achieve comprehensive reform when the expectations of those developing the programme may have been much more modest.

The Policy Exchange report cites the introduction to the 2012 Richards Review, as an example: “Apprenticeships, or at least the notion of them, are popular. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because there is broad support amongst all stakeholders for a strong Apprenticeship system in our country. At the same time, with that warm regard and that popularity, comes a diversity of views on what an Apprenticeship is and, more importantly, what it should be going forward… as a consequence, we risk losing sight of the core features of what makes Apprenticeships work, what makes them unique.”

This lack of clarity around programme definitions can also confuse questions about whether these kinds of programmes are effective or worthwhile. Many programmes that go by the same name differ significantly, while others with different names are almost identical.

At TSIP, we believe the answer is that high-level, easy to communicate, aims should be married to SMART goals for the life of the programme. Clarity and precision around programme objectives help to ensure that programme owners can be held accountable while also safeguarding them from unfair judgment.

At the same time, programme definitions support informed funding choices and attributable results. And, while investing time in these definitions may seem impractical and pedantic, as some of the criticism of the Apprenticeship scheme brings to life, definitions have real world consequences.

Building a future

Get in, Go far…’ is the tag line, and universal promise, of the UK’s Apprenticeships programme to young people looking for a substantive alternative to university study. In this, and other social programmes, we need to make sure we’re delivering on that promise for our sake and theirs.