How to ensure apprentices are following the right path

With the government looking to introduce a ‘skills and training revolution’ for post-16 education, what can employers do to ensure that vocational education delivers the training and skills that they need? Graeme Dryden from the Association of Plumbing & Heating Contractors highlights some of the key issues.

Historically, plumbing courses have largely been shaped by employers and included a focus on the more traditional skills like cold water and sanitation, and lead work. Apprenticeships for plumbing and heating technicians are designed to provide the breadth and depth of knowledge and skill to meet the demands on our fast evolving, highly technical industry, and hopefully provide a bedrock for new areas of work, such as the introduction of low carbon heating.

Employers working together means that apprenticeships will always offer the best solution for the individual, the employer and the consumer. This positive collaboration has also recently highlighted a need for a more specialist occupation for more complex low carbon heating installations. As a result, the Low Carbon Heating Technician apprenticeship is being developed alongside the revision of the Domestic Heating and Technician apprenticeship, with both employer groups working independently with a similar end-goal.

Falling short

However, while the vocational training landscape looks positive, scratch the surface and we see a different picture. With one apprenticeship being the route to occupational competence, we expect to see a few qualifications leading to this career objective. Currently there are over 30 plumbing-related qualifications being funded, with less than 20% leading to occupational competence.

The reason for this is simple – plumbing training is big business for colleges and training centres, and ultimately the awarding organisations who provide them. Industry employers and their apprentices were once seen as the customer of qualifications. Now, the college or training provider is very much the consumer and the awarding organisations will make qualifications to meet their new customers’ needs, and not necessarily the learner or the employer. This can result in qualifications that are easier to deliver through less content or quality assurance, and easier to sell to unsuspecting students who are looking to start a career or retrain in a new profession.

Recent examples of this include allowing adaptations to the qualification, due to the pandemic. With the aim of not disadvantaging the student. Some apprentices have achieved their Level 2 plumbing and heating qualification after having only taken a small fraction of the assessments required of their qualification, with the rest being determined by the tutor.

Safety risk

This is just one case where the educational system has failed the learner, the current or potential employer, and ultimately the end-user. This has not only led to a rise in customer complaints, but more importantly, puts the safety of everyone at risk. Employers must make sure apprentices understand what is required of them and know what is happening at their college or training centre.

Recent employer consultation events have seen the quality of teaching as a significant concern 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. However, we must not forget the incredible pressure we see lecturers, trainers and assessors under, with demands from senior management and leaders expecting greater income from qualification delivery, tighter demands on targets for completion, and increased recruitment numbers onto courses.

Commercial interests

Government education policy is often designed to meet other social demands and needs, which is not always what is best for the plumbing and domestic heating industry. So in this commercial race to the bottom, it’s more important than ever for us to understand how and why the industry has found itself in this situation, and we need the government to listen to the employers in education skills.

In response to this need, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) has adopted 15 different route panels to meet the needs of specific sectors, each represented by employers with demonstrable knowledge, expertise and credibility in their sectors. These panels are expected to provide a strategic overview of their occupational route while applying their professional expertise to apprenticeship proposals, standards and assessments plans, which are then sent to the Institute for approval.

These discussions bring about a level of scrutiny that was previously lacking in plumbing qualifications. As a major player in the Employer Group reviewing the Plumbing and Domestic Heating Technician Apprenticeship, we at the APHC have witnessed the level of commitment from employers and training providers alike.

The people connected to both education and industry all want the best quality and practices for apprentices and young people undertaking technical qualifications. In fact, BPEC, an awarding organisation and apprenticeship end point assessment organisation, has played an important role in forging these relationships with employers and training providers.

They are the first and, to date, the only Awarding Organisation to ask for feedback on Teacher Assessed Grades to ensure they meet industry competence expectations. It’s these seeds of hope that we need to grow.

Clear vision

There are certainly things to be excited about when it comes to the continual improvement of quality in plumbing and heating education, both in terms of safety and the robustness of qualifications. The next important step will be for the government to listen to employers and decommercialise training, balance the skills, support lecturers, trainers and assessors, and create a clear vision and guidance to help develop apprenticeships to be fit for purpose and as diverse as the industry itself is.

 

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