Fostering high quality Apprenticeships

In this guest blog, Richard Turner, Head of Apprenticeships at BT and Co-Chair of The St Martin’s Group, explores the importance of shifting the narrative surrounding apprenticeships to ensure quality and outcomes are at the centre of learning and working pathways.

I’m very proud that BT is amongst the very best of the UK’s apprentice employers, recruiting over 3,000 apprenticeships every year in a range of roles. If you were to place a broadband order with BT today, the fibreoptic network through which you’d receive your data will have been placed by apprentices. The cyber security specialist, protecting your data, would have been an apprentice. The sales agent on the other end of the phone when you placed your order, would have been an apprentice. The very mobile phone you used to make the call in the first place, may well have been bought from an EE/BT store being run by an apprentice retail manager. At every stage of the customer journey – whether in B2B or B2C – apprentices will have been involved.

Key to our approach is considering our apprenticeships an integral part of – and in many cases a prerequisite – to progression. Our managers value all parts of an apprenticeship, and understand that it’s the full range of knowledge, skills, and behaviours they learn that produce a well-rounded colleague. As a result, completing an apprenticeship is considered a key milestone, and apprentices are encouraged to work all the way through to – and pass – their End Point Assessments.

This focus on the complete end-to-end journey encourages managers to take part in the design process. How can we make the learning work best for both the manager and the apprentice? How should we structure the learning? How do we get the best work out of the apprentice? By considering the start, the middle, and the end of learning pathways, the entire quality of the apprentice experience follows suit.

It’s not just BT who holds this belief. I co-chair the St Martin’s Group, a membership body formed to bring a combined voice to training providers, employers, and assessment bodies. It is the only membership organisation in the UK to represent all three pillars of the market, and brings a collaborative spirit and solutions-focused approach to evidence-based recommendations for policy-makers.

My proposal is, collectively, that we shift the spotlight. For too long the focus has been on numbers of new apprentice starts. The apprenticeship community will sit in board rooms showing year-on-year increases of new starts, or new standards being adopted. We nod our head collectively when new data shows us increased levels of diversity joining our organisations.

What we know less about, however, is whether or not these individuals complete their apprenticeships and what occurs after they do. Do higher rates of diversity in new starts translate to higher rates of diversity as individuals progress through the organisation? For those individuals that don’t complete their apprenticeship, why not? The fact is, so little is known about “life after the apprenticeship” – which is a situation made worse by increasing non-completions in the sector. This has the potential to erode public trust.

My proposal is that we as a community shift the narrative onto completions and non-completions. We ask who and what is responsible for the growing incompletions in the apprenticeship system. We ask ourselves, what are the true measures of quality when it comes to apprenticeships, and how we might translate that to strengthen public trust. The St Martin’s Group has recently commissioned research into this very topic, following its research into the financial benefits of apprenticeships, and is making use of the data and insight made available through its member organisations. From this, the group hopes to provide a full understanding of “life after the apprenticeship.”

In the interim, BT will continue to fly the flag when it comes to apprenticeship quality. We will actively encourage the community to build completions and quality into the design and delivery of apprenticeships. We will continue to work with partners such as The St Martin’s Group and 5% Club to encourage good practice and steer public policy in support of this agenda. Crucially, we will encourage apprentices to speak up about how important it is to them that they complete the journey they started on.