Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo




Inquiry into the Way Forward for Apprenticeships

18 March 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Ms Sue Ramsey (Chairperson)
Mr Robin Newton (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Rev Dr Robert Coulter
Mr Alex Easton
Mr David Hilditch
Ms Anna Lo
Mr David McClarty
Mrs Claire McGill

Mr John D’Arcy Association of Northern Ireland Colleges
Dr Catherine O’Mullan Northern Regional College
Mr David Smith South Eastern Regional College
Dr Raymond Whiteford Belfast Metropolitan College

The Chairperson (Ms S Ramsey):

The Committee will now hear a briefing from the Association of Colleges on the Committee’s investigation into the way forward for apprenticeships. Over time, the Committee has built up a relationship with the association.

Mr John D’Arcy (Association of Northern Ireland Colleges):

Thank you. I echo the words of our chairman, Brian Acheson, and thank the Committee for taking the time to visit the college and hear our evidence on apprenticeships and how they work in the college sector. We look forward to showing you round the building and meeting lecturers and apprentices, as well as employers. The paper that we have submitted to the Committee represents the views of the six colleges on the wide issue of apprenticeships. The main detail will be provided by my three colleagues, and I would like to introduce them.

On my far left is David Smith, the director of economic engagement at the South Eastern Regional College. Next to me is Catherine O’Mullan, the deputy director for support and development at the Northern Regional College. To my right is Raymond Whiteford, senior manager for science, technology, engineering and mathematics at Belfast Metropolitan College.

I will highlight the current situation with regard to apprenticeships as it impacts on colleges and/or learners. Of course, the situation is heavily coloured by the current economic downturn and the practical issues that that poses for colleges, young people and, indeed, employers because the whole area of apprenticeships is based on a partnership model.

We also want to comment on the operation of the pre-apprenticeship model and how practical impacts arise from the economic downturn in terms of how young people might progress out of the pre-apprenticeship model as it currently stands. As colleges are places of learning, our core focus with regard to progression is to ensure that young people progress throughout their learning experience and, also, into employment. Again, however, there are particular issues that impact on training providers with regard to progression.

Northern Ireland still faces the whole issue of recognition and perception of vocational education. The ongoing debate about academic versus vocational education is pertinent at the present time. As colleges, we always like to put forward the vocational, professional and technical route as an appropriate mode for many young people here.

In my colleagues’ comments, you will find that there is a clear focus on how colleges respond to employers’ needs. Some apprenticeships that we have taken forward in the past number of years have been a direct result of engagement with employers. You will hear about and see some good examples of that during the course of your visit.

We will also comment on the quality of provision that young people get, which has already been referred to in our informal discussions prior to the meeting — about how we envisage that students can avail themselves of all of a college’s services, so that an apprentice has the same access to facilities as higher-education and mainstream further-education students. We see that as being a value-added aspect of college provision.

Finally, we want to look forward to how the apprenticeship model might be improved. It is particularly timely that the Committee is looking at the model at this stage. Perhaps the economic downturn gives its work a renewed focus.

Mr David Smith (South Eastern Regional College):

The work that the South Eastern Regional College does is similar to work that is done by the other colleges with regard to apprenticeships and training. We have a large intake of trainees — over 1,200 each year, 267 of which are apprentices. We offer a range and breadth of provision in 18 vocational areas. Much of our work on apprenticeships is done with industry. We work closely with employer groups and the sector skills councils.

For example, I draw your attention to the work, more of which you will see this afternoon, that we have done Province-wide with the Polymers Association. That work was requested by employers who wanted an apprenticeship to support training in the polymer industry. I am pleased to say that we have got that course up and running with apprentices this year. You will hear more about it later. We also offer unique programmes for wood machining, refrigeration and air conditioning. We are one of only two Province-wide providers of apprenticeships in construction-plant maintenance.

Apart from the work that we do with industry, we are keen to regard training as being of equal importance to the higher-education and further-education provision that we offer. Training and apprenticeships are not regarded as second-class provision for young people; that is wrong. We are committed to ensure that the provision that we offer is of equal value and worth.

As colleges, we are able to offer additional and tailored learning support for young people. We have good careers packages. The South Eastern Regional College offers an online careers package to help young people to progress beyond their particular programme. We have staff who, I must say, go beyond the normal duty of care when they work with young people in order to give them the extra support that they need to, for example, open bank accounts and find employers; and in supporting them when they are employed and in directed training.

In a Learning and Skills Development Agency survey of the college’s young people in training programmes, 98% said that the training increased their confidence and was relevant to their career aspirations. A survey of employers found that most were very satisfied with the relevance of the apprenticeships and other training programmes to their businesses. We see training programmes as mainstream and crucial to what we do. We will work with the Committee and the Department to ensure that what is offered is and continues to be appropriate.

Dr Catherine O’Mullan (Northern Regional College):

I will give an overview of how the colleges in the further education sector work with employers generally and how this has led to a number of specific adult apprenticeship programmes being developed. You are aware that the colleges have links with employers through the formal training programme. However, we also have a holistic focus on economic engagement generally, and that has been directed by the Department for Employment and Learning’s FE Means Business agenda.

As part of the structure of the new regional colleges, there is a deputy director, a senior manager and other managers whose main focus is to develop and maintain relationships with employers, to be able to ascertain their needs and to provide solutions for them, particularly in the areas of upskilling or reskilling employees. One of the main ways in which colleges do that is by liaising with their workforce development forums. You will be aware that six workforce development forums were set up, and that their geographical areas align with the six regional colleges.

The chairperson at Northern Regional College is Graham Whitehurst. He is also managing director of Michelin, which obviously has a long-standing relationship with the college. Michelin’s training sector is actually based at the Farm Lodge site in Ballymena. The key aims of the workforce development forums are to maximise engagement with employers in the region, to encourage employers to translate and articulate their actual skill needs, and then to work and liaise with the colleges to develop specific solutions to those needs.

In our briefing paper, there is one specific example — the Northern Regional College’s development of an adult apprenticeship in maintenance engineering. That came out of research that the Engineering Training Council for Northern Ireland, representing the sector skills councils, undertook initially in conjunction with the workforce development forum. They identified a particular skills gap at level 3 — technician level — in maintenance engineering across the region. About 16% of the population are actually employed in manufacturing in that area. Essentially, a small number of employees were moving from company to company, and that created a backdraught — a particular skills gap.

The college was asked to devise a specific programme to address those needs and to help to upskill and reskill existing employees, taking into account their previous experience and qualifications. We therefore developed a two-year adult apprenticeship programme, involving two years of on- and off-the-job training, that enabled employees to gain a NVQ at level 3, a national certificate in engineering — which is a well-recognised, accredited qualification — and any essential skills that were integrated into that programme.

The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) supported fully that course programme. In fact, in the first instant, the Department funded the pilot fully. The workforce development forum also supported the programme fully, as did the employers that bought into it and identified the skills need. When the programme started last September in Ballymena, we had a cohort of 11 apprentices. A number of significant companies — Michelin, Montupet, Schlumberger, Diageo and Moyola Precison Engineering — sent their employees. Those companies have not had to pay for the training directly, but obviously they have invested in their employees’ training. That is a very successful example of how the college can liaise with the workforce development forum and support local employers.

If I were to point out the key successes of that programme, they would be that we were able to identify the skills gaps and that we took a collective approach. Given the college’s good reputation and credibility, based on its staff expertise and facilities, employers were happy to send their employees on the course.

Dr Raymond Whiteford ( Belfast Metropolitan College):

Dr O’Mullan has emphasised the holistic nature of the provision of apprenticeship programmes in the college and the integration of that service with other areas. Students who come to the colleges are safe and happy in a neutral environment, which is an important development for them. As students, they have the full resources of the colleges at their disposal, such as the information and learning technology networks, the learning resource centres and the libraries. Personal training plans are negotiated individually, and the work is generally done to a high standard.

Careers advice and guidance is available at critical points during the apprenticeship period — at the beginning, and at the transition between level 2 and level 3. Quite often, there is a temptation to stop at level 2, so guidance is given at those critical points. Most importantly, from the holistic point of view, there are clear progression opportunities. Students are given advice at level 3 about further development opportunities that are available to them. That is particularly important in training the trainers and managers of the future, who have to go on to a higher level. Certain trades and certain areas have experienced some blockage in that respect, which probably coincided with the introduction of NVQs. That bridging to higher-level courses is very important.

All the colleges are focused on their role in economic engagement and development. Like other colleges, we have a separate head of department for workforce and economic development. We have an employment engagement officer for the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. That has allowed us to establish a partnership with the industry and the sector skills councils.

A good example of that in our case is the development of a new gas engineering apprenticeship. Gas engineers need a range of skills; not only gas-related skills, but electrical and some plumbing skills. It is a multi-skilled qualification which also addresses the issue of renewable energy sources. The colleges have co-operated with the employers and the sector skills councils to develop that apprenticeship programme, which is up and running successfully this year. For people who leave after level 3, that can lead on with us, for example, to a foundation degree in building services and renewable energies. That demonstrates the holistic approach.

The maintenance apprenticeship programme has already been mentioned; it is run in partnership with the Engineering Training Council. Colleges often provide bespoke training, sometimes at full cost, to employers that really value it, such as FG Wilson, Bombardier Shorts and Montupet. Engineering Skills for Industry is an initiative that we offer for unemployed people. It was established through the European social fund, and has been very successful for long-term unemployed people, some of whom have progressed into jobs. In fact, 98% of people who have completed it have moved into employment, and some of them have moved into apprenticeships. That is a useful route for long-term unemployed people, which helps to solve social problems.

The staff of the colleges are qualified to national standards. Many are external verifiers for the awarding bodies, and have participated actively in the development of new courses and qualifications with the awarding bodies. That gives us a particular strength.

We have heard a lot about World Skills, which will be hosted in the UK in 2011. There is a big drive to up our game and participate in that. There is a good tradition of participating in skills competitions in certain areas of apprenticeships; perhaps not so much in others. A good example of that is the Skill Build competitions, one of which concluded recently. Students from different colleges compete against one another to show what they can do, and can win gold, silver and bronze medals. I will not mention the winners from Belfast Metropolitan College, but I am happy to say that we had some in that competition.

They will then move onto the finals — the UK championships in London — and that will feed through to World Skills. We participated in the medal competitions for City and Guilds, and there were a number of gold-medal winners. That competition included City and Guilds as a whole; only half a dozen people from 70,000 can win gold medals, and those were students from Northern Ireland. Again, that really shows the standard. I could go on; however, I think that I had better stop.

Each college is now appointing a skills champion to gear up for World Skills 2011. In the case of Belfast Metropolitan College, I found out on Friday that that will be me. The skills champion will be important in developing areas where competition is well developed, and in promoting other areas where the idea of competition is not so important.

Why are competitions such as that so important? To repeat what was raised earlier: the status of people engaged in completing apprenticeships, of fully qualified tradespeople and engineers, is completely different here than in some other European countries. For example, in Germany, a master carpenter has a high social status. There is not that social status here. We have got to address that right across the board, in the science, technology and engineering disciplines.

Looking to the future, we are going to have to export to survive. We need to export skills, knowledge and expertise, and our building companies should be building in the UK mainland and further afield. We have to export to survive. The only way that we will do that is to value the people with those skills.

Mr D’Arcy:

Hopefully, that gives you a flavour of the importance that colleges put on apprenticeships. It has been a core part of college work for many decades and will continue to be. Some of the examples of developing relationships with employers show how we are actively able to make sure that the apprenticeship schemes delivered meet the needs of the employer, and, most importantly, the needs of the learner.

We have flagged up particular issues — and I am sure that you will want to pick up on those — that are largely a result of the economic downturn. We are concerned as providers, and as people who provide pastoral care for our learners, about the impact on young people who may be losing their jobs. We want to make sure that we can continue their training within the college setting. There is concern as to how we take that forward.

The economic downturn has had an impact on the pre-apprenticeship programme. Normally, young people on a pre-apprenticeship programme would be expected to move on. However, there may not now be a job or an apprenticeship for them to move on to. Those are very current issues that all colleges, and, indeed, all training providers, are facing. We are actively working with the Department so that we can ensure that young people are not disadvantaged because of the current wider economic downturn.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much. There are a couple of things that have come up continuously throughout the inquiry into apprenticeships. I do not think that we are coming at it from a negative point of view. We are trying to see the positives in apprenticeships. Dr Whiteford made a point about the recognition of people who have skills in their field, and that is something that we need to look at.

The issue of essential skills keeps coming up. At our last meeting, we had a presentation from the Alliance of Sector Skills Councils — which Dr O’Mullan mentioned — around the careers advice that young people are receiving. There is an issue of flexibility around hours, and around how to get a balance between how long people spend in college and how long they spend out on the job, for want of a better phrase. We are trying to pull all those issues together so that we can bring a positive report to the Department which tries, where possible, to tweak what needs tweaking or change what needs changing. I would appreciate it if you talked about careers advice, essential skills and the possibility of being in college versus being on the job.

Dr O'Mullan:

Are you interested essentially in the 16- to 18-year-old cohort? All colleges have specialist staff and/or experienced academic staff who interview all the students, including trainees. We treat our trainees in the same manner as our further- and higher-education students. They will be advised of course content and potential career opportunities and so on at recruitment, before starting at college.

The biggest issue that colleges have at present is that, with recruitment, young people ask what the point is of doing an apprenticeship, pre-apprenticeship or training course. One of the key aspects of the apprenticeship programme is that it is employer-led. Employed status is vital. Students have difficulty finding an employer and they cannot enter into an apprenticeship programme; that is a disappointment.

The pre-apprenticeship option is also dependent on having good, relevant work placements. We are having great difficulty in obtaining work placements at week 13 in the programme for our young people. Ours is a college with extensive employer links, a database of 700 or 800 employers, and a tradition of excellent employer relationships over the years in the north of the Province and as far south as Newtownabbey, yet we still cannot find placements for young people. We have about 1,400 young people on training provision, including those on the Electrical Training Trust course next year. It is a difficult one, in view of some of the mixed messages that are out there for young people. However, we need to provide skills and training.

Essential skills are a component of each framework. As with further education, most colleges provide young people with the opportunity to gain essential skills. It is a component of the framework, usually delivered and integrated into the vocation area. It is part and parcel of the programme.

Recruitment is a big issue. As Mr D’Arcy said, a difficult issue for us is how we should advise our pre-apprentices who are finishing their courses in June as to what options are open to them. At present, if they cannot secure employment, an apprenticeship at level 2 is not an option. Other options may lie in further education, with a national diploma course. However, if we want to retain a focus on skills in the sector, there needs to be some consideration of progression routes for young people this coming September.

Mr Newton:

Like you, Chairperson, I agree with Dr Whiteford as to the status of the skilled craftsman in society. I put a question to the Minister on Monday at Question Time on those lines — I asked him what he intends to do to enhance the status of the craftsperson.

I have some difficulty in trying to understand one aspect of the paper, namely, the pre-apprentice and apprentice route. What do you see as the solution? One cannot qualify unless one has had work experience on the job: college experience alone does not suffice to gain an apprenticeship.

Mr Smith:

There is potential in using simulation to provide a realistic work environment for some of those young people on pre-apprenticeship programmes. It can be argued that that is not the same thing for them as being employed, being with an employer and learning from what happens in the workplace. However, it is an option. If the framework for apprenticeships is broadly similar to that for pre-apprenticeships, progression will be easier.

At the moment, in some programme areas, it is difficult for a pre-apprentice to follow the same curriculum as an apprentice. Therefore, if the pre-apprentice finds a job, he cannot interchange as easily as we would like. However, there is an opportunity for simulated practice in a number of the vocational areas, and that is one area that could be looked at.

Mr Newton:

There is a lady at the back of the room with former City and Guilds qualifications experience who would not agree with you — I only agree with you up to a certain point.

Mr Smith:

It is not possible for someone to obtain a NVQ, which is part of the apprenticeship programme, unless they have been in the workplace and can provide evidence from that experience. However, we can offer an alternative model if we work with awarding bodies and sectors skills councils, and we need to work at doing that.

Mr Newton:

The Committee has been provided with evidence of excellence in training, yet we are aware that there are other apprentices who do not get such quality of training. If we go down the route that you suggest, will some apprentices benefit from best practice while others receive secondary-level experience and qualifications?

Mr Smith:

If enough parties work hard to ensure that that does not happen, we can overcome those barriers. That will involve not only the colleges; it will involve awarding bodies and sector skills councils. We need to come up with something that will work in the next few years. We will, eventually, come out of the recession and will then need large numbers of appropriately qualified young people. I accept that it is not an easy issue to solve, but if enough people approach the matter with open minds, there is potential to find a solution — it will not be easy, but there is potential.

Mr Easton:

I was feeling a wee bit old today — I attended this college when I was 17 years old.

How are colleges coping with apprentices who are losing their positions with employers — are they able to find substitute employers quite quickly or are they struggling? What are colleges doing to promote apprenticeships among women, given that apprenticeship schemes are mostly male dominated?

Dr O’Mullan:

There is a formal set of DEL guidelines — we call them our contingency arrangements — that we work through when young people have lost their employed status and are not apprentices any more. The first step is to look for alternative or foster employment, which is very difficult to find. That does not stop us from trying, but it is extremely difficult. We link with the sector skills councils and check all possibilities but, to be honest, it is not happening.

First-year apprentices can transfer onto the equivalent pre-apprenticeship programme, which is a parallel programme that does not require employed status. As Mr Smith said, in some vocational areas the curriculum attached to those programmes differs; therefore, it is not an easy transfer, but we are managing it. The major issue has been with those young people in the second year of their apprenticeship programme — when a transfer to a pre-apprenticeship is of no real value — who are six to eight weeks from completing their NVQ level 2.

We work closely with the Department for Employment and Learning, which has been keen to hear about our issues and look for ways to help us. We are retaining our young people in the college — in some cases they are being transferred to further education (FE) status. We are also working to see whether we can finalise the last bit of their portfolio or evidence base, to ensure that those young people get their qualification. The last thing that we want is for young people who are 80% of the way through a level 2 programme to have to leave that programme and become unemployed, without having obtained their level 2 qualification or all their necessary skills.

Every college has been working through the contingency arrangements, and DEL has been very responsive to the suggestions and proposals that we have put forward. That is how we are managing the situation at the minute.

Mr Easton:

Thank you. What is being done to encourage women onto apprenticeships?

Dr O’Mullan:

I should be able to answer that question. As a scientist, I know that women have been encouraged into engineering and science since my time in education — I will not say how many years ago that was. There is a number of initiatives; I am sure that every college has different initiatives. The Northern Regional College has an initiative to get women into engineering and technology.

I shall outline one example from two years ago, when our staff, working with local schools — with which we have close connections through the entitlement framework programme — recruited a cohort of lower-sixth girls for a three-day programme to give them an overview of engineering. Many young girls still believe that engineering apprenticeships only involve heavy engineering work, whereas many engineering jobs are AutoCAD-based, utilising computer aided design (CAD), computer aided manufacturing ( CAM) and robotic computer numerical controlled (CNC) machinery. The three-day programme was designed to show those girls what they could do and encourage them to consider undertaking a national diploma or, indeed, a higher national diploma (HND).

The higher education opportunities in FE are a well-kept secret; there is a range of HND programmes throughout the sector that enable girls to acquire skills, establish links with employers and, hopefully, obtain careers at the end of their courses.

Mrs McGill:

I welcome the witnesses, and I thank them for their briefing. I am particularly interested in Catherine O’Mullan’s comments about the workforce development forum. In the north-west area —which includes Derry, Limavady and Strabane — we are trying to ascertain the value of the forum and its impact on the needs that exist in particular areas. I have read the paper that ANIC submitted to the Committee and it seems that the workforce development forum is well developed; its engagement with employers, its remit and what it delivers sound impressive. Are all the forums equally developed? Perhaps that is a question that John D’Arcy could answer. It seems from ANIC’s paper that the northern workforce development forum is delivering and its plans are well advanced.

Mr D’Arcy:

The workforce development forums have settled down well in the past year or so. They have managed to move forward quickly with specific projects — the adult apprenticeship initiative that Catherine mentioned is an excellent example of that. The Belfast workforce development forum has introduced some project-based initiatives in software engineering and in information and communication technology (ICT). The work of the forums has been impressive; they have been able to gather detailed information from local employers about the skills needs in particular areas. As the forums develop, their work will bear a lot of fruit for colleges.

One area that should be looked at is the relationship between workforce development forums, the sector skills councils and other employer organisations — indeed, the Department is looking at that. There can be several different messages coming from those organisations at the same time. However, as providers, colleges and private training organisations must ensure that they send the right message at the right time, so that people get the maximum benefit from them. Nonetheless, the forums have taken off well.

Mrs McGill:

I hear what you are saying. Who do the workforce development forums report to regarding their effectiveness? You have given a verbal report concerning one regional college, but it would be valuable to the Committee if we were to get some kind of feedback about what is happening in all areas. I was impressed by your report, but I want to find out about the positive impact of the workforce development forum in my area, the north-west.

Dr Whiteford:

Further to what John D’Arcy said about software engineering, after the dot-com boom and bust in 2000-01, the IT industry suffered from a shortage of new programmers and software engineers. As a result of the workforce development forum, colleges have developed an accelerated programme that retrains graduates from non-computing and non-technical disciplines to meet the needs of the IT industry. There has been a high number of software developers completing that programme and linking successfully with Momentum, which is the sector skills council for that industry.

In the past, for example, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) had to link with 16 colleges, but it now has the opportunity to link with the six area-based colleges. That enables CITB to have a much closer working relationship with the colleges, to ensure that they work towards meeting the needs of the construction industry. Representatives of the construction industry are members of the Belfast workforce development forum.

Mrs McGill:

The needs of employers and of particular areas must be taken into account. The North West Regional College serves my area, which includes Strabane and Derry. There is a great amount of needs in that area, and those have been magnified and multiplied at this time. Catherine, you mentioned an extensive number of employers that got involved in programmes, but we do not have an equivalent pool of employers in my area. Therefore, the north-western workforce development forum must be very proactive.

John, the paper from ANIC states:

“in the North West, the Electrical Training Trust finds it difficult to provide apprenticeships in that area because of limited local employer support.”

I wonder about the use of the word “support”. Will you clarify whether there are local employers located in that area or, historically, have those particular apprenticeships not been available in the north-west? To clear up any confusion; I know that, geographically, Coleraine is in the north-west, but are we discussing the geographic north-west or the area served by the North West Regional College?

Mr D’Arcy:

The part of the paper that you quoted from refers to the area served by the North West Regional College. The difficulty that the college experiences in trying to service the needs of the community is that electrical apprenticeships are demand-led by employers and there are not enough electrical employers in that region. Therefore, it is difficult for the Electrical Training Trust to provide a course.

The college is concerned that electrical apprenticeships not being available in that region could have a negative effect on the region’s development. Discussion is required on how far to take the demand-led model and whether there is scope to train for the future.

The Chairperson:

It is good that our consideration is regionally based.

Mr D’Arcy:

To return to a previous question, it is my understanding that workforce development forums report to the Department. The Department for Employment and Learning established the forums; the colleges simply provide secretarial services for them.

Ms Lo:

John, in your briefing you mentioned the possibility of exploring public-sector provision of apprenticeships. There is a clear urgency to provide an adequate number of places on apprenticeship schemes. How far have you gone with that idea? Have you spoken to the Department? We should bear in mind that it is a question of involving not only the public sector but its suppliers and contractors.

Mr D’Arcy:

I will hand over to David to answer that.

Mr Smith:

I am not aware of any particular discussions that have been had with the Department regarding apprenticeships in the public sector. The idea has been mooted, but the operational guidelines for apprenticeships currently exclude the public sector from offering them. However, there are opportunities in areas such as construction and engineering to work with public-sector employers.

For example, we, as a college, have discussed potential apprenticeships in areas such as construction plant maintenance, catering and hospitality, for example, with one public-sector employer. If we cannot find private-sector employers, there is an opportunity for public-sector employers to offer realistic work experience that meets the requirements for some NVQs. That area has much merit and could be explored.

Ms Lo:

What can the Committee do to progress the matter? How can we help?

Mr Smith:

It is not for me to say, but the Committee might decide to include that as a recommendation in its report. The regional colleges have talked to the Department, which has had a positive attitude towards many new ideas and suggestions. However, given the current economic circumstances, that area is worth exploring.

The Chairperson:

Keep that up your sleeve until we start to compile the Committee report.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter:

Thank you for your interesting presentation. One problem that we encounter again and again is the fact that many young people in the broader or wider educational field are deficient in maths, English and cognitive skills. What are you doing to overcome that problem?

Dr O’Mullan:

As I mentioned earlier, the essential skills — literacy, numeracy and, from 2009 onwards, IT — will be a component part of all frameworks for training provision, such as Training for Success, and apprenticeship provision. Moreover, some areas will include wider skills such as problem solving and working with people. When young people reach the age of 16, the FE sector gives them the opportunity to redevelop those skills through further education and, in some cases, higher education.

It might be fair to say that the FE sector feels that it is addressing that needs of young people aged between 16 and 18. There may be an issue about how to equip young people with literacy, numeracy and other skills in the post-primary sector. However, those skills are a component of all frameworks in training provision, and young people cannot succeed in a programme unless they undertake to develop those skills.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter:

The lack of those skills is a problem. Have you outlined that problem during any discussions with representatives of the primary and secondary education sectors?

Dr O’Mullan:

Ballymena recently had an area-based inspection. It was the first time that the Education and Training Inspectorate had examined primary, post-primary and further education and considered transition arrangements in their broadest sense, such as the handing over of data and information about young people and their educational needs. The issue of essential skills and young people’s needs has been raised on numerous occasions — it is fair to say that the Education and Training Inspectorate, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education are aware of it.

Mr McClarty:

Nowadays, grammar schools, particularly in rural areas, accept pupils of all abilities, unlike schools in Belfast, which can afford to select A-grade students. Some young people are more naturally suited to a vocational-type course but are attending a grammar school — how proactively do the colleges encourage those young people to take a vocational course? Given that it is necessary for schools to put bums on seats in order to obtain funding, is there competition for pupils? Are grammar schools intent on keeping those young people rather than encouraging them to attend FE colleges?

Dr Whiteford:

I will begin by adding to the earlier point about essential skills and schools. It is very important that, in apprenticeship schemes, the essential skills — that is; literacy, numeracy and IT skills — are taught in relation to the vocational subjects that apprentices are studying. That makes the skills real for students, and it engages them — that is the key. The older a person gets, the more difficult it becomes to teach them the essential skills; therefore, relating the skills to vocational subjects is advantageous and it would be nice to see that being done in schools.

Schools run a vocational education programme that involves contracting colleges to provide vocational units. Belfast Metropolitan College has been actively engaged in that for a number of years. With the establishment of the entitlement framework, all schools will have to consider having a provision that is one third academic, one third vocational and one third mixed.

I agree that grammar schools are a fertile field for benefiting society and everyone in it. We find it a little difficult to engage with grammar schools, but we have been, and are increasingly, successful with that as things change for grammar schools — the entitlement framework will help us in that respect. For example, we work with Inst, which is located beside the college, to deliver the European Computer Driving Licence, and the school has been positively surprised by the way in which that has benefited its pupils. That is something that we hope to develop.

Some of the sector skills councils have intimated that they want to work with Belfast Metropolitan College and other colleges to develop a scheme that offers modules of an apprenticeship programme or provides NVQ level 1 and level 2 modules in schools as part of their vocational education. That would encourage young people to think about technical apprenticeships and get an idea of the range of technical abilities that are needed as well as the great opportunities that exist. In engineering in particular, there is a replacement cost involved in simply maintaining the current levels of people in the sector — as people retire, for example — never mind the cost that is involved in facilitating any expansion.

Mr Smith:

To add to Raymond’s point, colleges are very proactive in engaging with grammar and secondary schools. In meetings with secondary and grammar schools — I realise that Mr McClarty’s question referred to grammar schools — our principal has been told that the further education college is central to those schools’ plans for the future and that they cannot deliver without us.

In the last two months, I have had meetings with colleagues from two grammar schools. They have been very open-minded about what is best for their students and have asked questions about what is best for their students’ needs. The issue is not necessarily about getting bums on seats; it is about what best fits, and how the college can help and support the schools. I am pleased to say that we are central to what the schools are trying to do.

Dr Whiteford:

I agree with David; that relationship has changed, and the entitlement framework is central to that.

Mr McClarty:

For Raymond’s information: there is only one Inst, and that is in Coleraine. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

We will let Stephen Nolan know that.

Mr Attwood:

I apologise for missing the early part of the briefing. I first want to clarify something: I get the sense from the paper that was submitted by ANIC that you believe that, in the round, the current model of apprenticeships is fit for purpose. You acknowledge that you must make various proposals, particularly in light of the current economic downturn, but I want to clarify that that is your view. I have a number of specific questions arising from that.

It is my understanding that there was a big argument that there should not be common points of entry for pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship schemes because people said that the higher-level skills base had to be put in place in order to have a skills-based economy and society. Is there not a tension between those positions? You are now saying that we need a common point of entry for pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships as part of the response to the economic situation, given that people are dropping out of apprenticeships. Prior to the downturn, we had information indicating that we needed to build a higher level of skills.

You are right to state that there should be an examination of whether we should have apprenticeships in non-traditional areas. Is the Department buying into that idea? That is an important question. The Committee’s report will be critical, given the situation that we face at present. The upturn, when it comes, will involve an economy with a different structure than previously existed. Is there any forward thinking by the Department about apprenticeships in non-traditional areas? Certainly, we are not getting much fresh thinking from the Department about how to implement your other recommendation, which is to create apprenticeships in the public sector. That is important currently, and may be even more relevant in the future.

My third point is that you seem to have some coded but, nonetheless, blunt criticisms of sector skills councils, particularly in the plumbing sector, which you have gone out of your way to mention. In your submission, you go as far as to say that there are “closed shops” in some sector skills councils — will you elaborate on that? It would be concerning if it were the case that there are areas in which sector skills councils are protecting their own interests rather than creating a more open system.

Mr D’Arcy:

Broadly speaking, colleges feel that the apprenticeship model is working reasonably well — that has come through in the tone of the paper. The economic downturn has focused attention on particular parts of the model; however, colleges, working in partnership with sector skills council employers, believe that the current programme has made reasonable progress.

I will now address your third point. It has been a difficult start-up period for a number of the sector skills councils. They are two years old, and several of them have only recently appointed Northern Ireland representatives. Therefore, there has always been a bit of a difference in how they have been able to engage with the employers that they represent. That has been flagged up by a number of other employer groupings.

Colleges are concerned that sector skills councils must be very clear as to their role: it is to represent the views of employers in identifying the skills needs and the sort of qualifications and frameworks that are required to support the development of their particular sector. Over the last year or so, we have experienced a degree of slippage in remits and agendas. At times, it appears that some sector skills councils may want to play a wider role in the provision of training, rather than their articulating what training should happen, how it should happen and how it should be accredited. That aspect is concerning.

Every organisation needs to be clear about what it is doing and we feel that the sector skills councils have a strong role in the very important task of upskilling and skilling people in Northern Ireland. However, councils need to be definite and focused as to what that role should be. In some areas, the relationships have changed and improved over the last number of years, but there are other areas in which they could yet be improved. It is important that, in the provision of training and skills to young people and in the reskilling of others, unnecessary tensions are not created between the various players. That leads us back to the question that Mrs McGill asked about whom workforce development forums report to — there is a lot of noise in the system as to who does what, who specifies what and who delivers.

Dr O’Mullan:

The main distinguishing feature between the apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship models was not whether there was a common point of entry; it was whether apprentices had employed status. Having employed status enables someone to undertake an apprenticeship programme, which allows them to undertake a NVQ at level 2 — the work-based learning qualification — as well as, for example, a technical certificate in essential skills. The pre-apprenticeship programme, by definition, does not require someone to have employed status; therefore, its curriculum does not focus on NVQs.

At the beginning of the programme two years ago, when the economy was doing well, we had very successful apprenticeship recruitment. Employers recruited and employed young people, and we had distinct cohorts of apprentices and pre-apprentices. There was a common core to the curriculum then. If someone lost their job, it was relatively straightforward to transfer them on to a good, suitable, relevant programme. If they gained employment — which actually happened two years ago — they could easily be transferred to an NVQ programme.

The speed and extent of the economic downturn has exacerbated the fact that we have cohorts, particularly in colleges, that we have to manage, where there is a change between the two. Over the last two years, the sector skills councils have directed, established and developed specific frameworks representing employers for pre-apprenticeship provision that are significantly different from the programme that apprentices are following. The timing has been unfortunate, but it is another factor that exacerbates our being unable to manage that change from apprentices losing their job on to a good, suitable relevant programme.

As Mr D’Arcy said, had all things been equal and had the economy been buoyant, the role of the sector skills councils and the frameworks might not have been an issue. However, if they are directing or influencing these pre-apprenticeship programmes very heavily, and they do not align with the NVQ programmes, it presents operational issues in addressing young people’s needs if they lose their jobs — and they are losing their jobs. A discussion has to be had about the frameworks and whether we are tied so specifically to them. It is a management issue.

Mr Attwood:

It is a pretty fundamental comment about the whole pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship world at the moment. You are saying that there needs to be a pretty big discussion about the frameworks.

Dr O’Mullan:

Absolutely, yes. The frameworks need to be available in good time to allow all providers and colleges to be able to deliver, and for young people to have a quality provision in an appropriate way. We are recruiting young people at this age, and it is very important that we should know, and young people need to be aware of, the frameworks that are going to be delivered to them in September.

There are certain sector skills councils whose frameworks need to be available or amended in a timely way. Whereas they say that they are representing employers, there may be instances where they are representing large employers. In the area of construction, there are a significant amount of small and medium-sized enterprises and small family businesses who may not know what a sector skills council is. The issue is to ensure that they are representing all of the employers out there, and that the framework reflects that, so that we can train young people accordingly.

Mr Smith:

I do not want to give the impression that we have issues with sector skills councils per se. We have very good support and relationships with a number of them; like Semta, ConstructionSkills, People 1st and so on. We just want to get across some points that have been flagged up in our paper.

Mr Attwood:

I provocatively said that I did not get the impression that DEL was responding to the question of how to broaden the apprenticeship base, including non-traditional industries, given the economic downturn. Do you agree with that?

Mr Smith:

I can give you an example of —

The Chairperson:

Do not allow Mr Attwood to provoke you. [Laughter.]

Mr Newton:

Or to lead you.

The Chairperson:

It is apprenticeship training that has got him to where he is now.

Mr Smith:

I can, in fairness, give an example: we have reintroduced an all-age apprenticeship in the financial services industry. We did that this year, and we needed the Department, as part of a pilot scheme, to waive the rules of how we could deliver it. The Department was very receptive to that.

We have also had discussions, jointly with the Construction Industry Training Board, about work and proposals to deal with unemployed apprentices in the construction sector. We had a very receptive hearing, and my experience in dealing with the Department is that it is willing to consider ideas and looking for ideas. I have not had experience of specific instances where the Department has said that it will not entertain an idea. There is a willingness to consider non-traditional apprenticeships and non-traditional routes, but perhaps more work needs to be done to firm up the proposals.

Dr O’Mullan:

I do not wish to give the impression that apprenticeships only exist in the construction, engineering and motor-vehicle sectors. They exist in catering, healthcare, retail and administration. Colleges and private training providers pick up on those sectors.

Mr Attwood:

Those are minor sectors against the total number of apprentices.

Dr O’Mullan:

Yes, they are.

The Chairperson:

Most of the questions and comments have been covered. It has been useful for the Committee to hear from you. We also wish to take a holistic approach, and we are keen to talk to everyone who is directly or indirectly involved. I look forward to talking to the young people who are involved in apprenticeships. We claim to know all that is going on, but we should always talk, where possible, to the people who are directly affected by the issue.

I found today’s meeting quite useful; it was open and honest. We are not trying to criticise the Department — if it is doing things right, we will be first to say so. If the Department is doing things wrong, bits and pieces may need to be changed. On behalf of the Committee, I thank you for your presentation, for your ongoing support to the Committee and for guiding, rather than leading or provoking, us down roads that it is useful to go down.