We all know technology sometimes gets bad press.
But can it deliver a positive social impact in apprenticeships?
Richard Alberg, CEO of MWS Technology Ltd, says the experience of Aptem suggests yes.


Social impact means the (ideally positive!) contribution an organisation or action has on a pressing social challenge. It is seen as an unqualified social good, and rightly so. And the parent of social impact is, more often than not, policy. But are there other ways of thinking about social impact – one that involves technology?
It isn’t hard to work out how policy on apprenticeships has a significant social impact. The training offered
by the apprenticeships system provides much-needed skills (a reskilling agenda) and the potential for social mobility for people who would otherwise be unable to engage in post-16 education.


The skills gap
It is widely acknowledged that the UK suffers a long- ingrained skills gap. According to figures by the Open University, the skills gap is costing businesses more than £2 billion a year in recruitment expenditure.

The British Chambers of Commerce Quarterly Economic Survey, published in April 2018, showed that employers experienced significant recruitment difficulties in the areas of skilled manual labour and professional and managerial roles, across both the manufacturing and service sectors.

The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2017 revealed widespread concerns among businesses of high-skilled labour shortages. Companies felt that the main drivers of skills deficits were competition, lack of qualifications, a lack of awareness of career opportunities among young people, and poor careers advice.

And apprenticeships do offer at least the potential for social mobility, though there have been few studies examining whether they deliver on this metric.

And there are some broader worries expressed by the Skills Commission about whether the funding is going where it should.


Technology as a perceived burden
But when it comes to technology, the press is much more negative. We are only two decades on from widespread use of the Internet, and we are already discussing its contribution to cyberwarfare and a breakdown in mental health. We practically all use smartphones now, yet we endlessly worry about the decline of social communication and the rise in screen-addiction.

All companies are shunting us to online banking and lifestyle management apps, but it just gives us a sense that our workload is rapidly increasing – at least according to writers like Craig Lambert in his book Shadow Work – the Unpaid, Unseen Jobs that Fill your Day.

It seems that technology is having a perceived social impact – a negative one.
But does technology have an underacknowledged positive social impact? At MWS Technology, we argue it does. Our experience has shown that our SaaS apprenticeship delivery platform Aptem has a vital role to play in enhancing the social impact of apprenticeship delivery. How?


Paperwork and time
The plethora of regulation surrounding apprenticeships means that most employers find apprenticeship compliance a steep learning curve, sometimes even a reason to not have apprenticeships. I don’t think regulation should be seen as an unwarranted imposition – it is there to make sure that employers are providing high-quality training to apprentices, without which the two core social impact benchmarks of reskilling and social mobility will not be met. However, it is unarguably a burden.

Employers and providers need to fill out a range of forms – the Enrolment Form/Individual Learning Record, the Commitment Statement, Initial Assessment, Learning Styles, and the Skills Scan. Then there are the agreements about ‘off-the-job’ training and end- point assessment. They have to show progression and map all the apprentice’s learning points to the standards for that role. They must comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

And they need to make sure they are collecting the right kind of information for oversight bodies such as the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), Ofsted and the Office for Students (OfS).

The compliance and reporting requirements are two of the core reasons why training providers find it hard to manage large numbers of apprentices without platforms like Aptem. Ada, National College for Digital Skills shared very positive feedback on Aptem’s performance as highlighted during their recent Ofsted inspection, which received a “good with outstanding features” rating. Ofsted were impressed, they said, by the platform’s ability to track student progress, because its reporting functions allow for closer and quicker monitoring.

Technology tools like Aptem save money – and we’ve estimated Aptem offers a monthly efficiency gain of 15% – by reducing the heavy load of administration, freeing up staff time for teaching and mentoring.

Aptem also allows programmes to grow without any corresponding impact on staff time. Whilst saving money and operational efficiency might seem like the concern of managers rather than educators, this also links into social impact. After all, saving money and growth capacity, allow expansion of the skills agenda and social mobility.


Retention rates are another important metric for reskilling and social mobility. There’s been a fair bit of discussion about retention and higher education level, so I will start there.

Analysis by the Social Mobility Foundation in 2017 found that there was a strong correlation between university drop-out rates and social background, with those from lower income backgrounds more likely to drop out.

A report by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2014, based on Futuretrack data, also suggested a strong relationship between socio-economic background and dropping out of university education.

The reasons mentioned included cost, personal issues, a lack of clarity about aims and deciding that university wasn’t for them. It is entirely possible to infer from this data that better communication at an earlier stage might have prevented a range of bad choices.

But what about apprenticeships? The review of social mobility and apprenticeships by the Skills Commission identified that 30% of people who start apprenticeships do not complete them. The Commission had no data on the social background of those dropping out. It offered a range of recommendations at the macro-policy level – including the need to collect statistics on socio-economic background and retention – all of which are valuable.

But what about the micro level, that is, the workplace or educational settings?

There are plenty of reports and articles on how to improve student retention. What most of them say is that it is about information and communication. Institutions and employers (in the case of apprenticeships) need to access information about student progress and be alerted to students who are struggling. Then it is about making sure there are ways to keep the student connected, whether by face-to-face pastoral care or online forums.

The idea of day-to-day tracking of student progress probably seems onerous, and it would be if we are thinking pre-technology. However, Aptem can do this instantaneously and, moreover, has an early warning system which identifies risks. And once institutions have this data to hand, they can intervene to help students.

And one of our clients shows a drop-out rate of around 18% – way below the national average. These are early figures and we can’t make a leap from these numbers to saying it’s because of Aptem. But we are pleased by the positive results so far and we plan to collect more data into 2019.


From technology to social impact
I have looked at two examples here – compliance and retention – and I’m sure we can think of more ways that technology can help apprenticeship delivery.

But contrary to the negative press technology gets, it really can help deliver a new reskilling and social mobility agenda by taking the slog and chance work out of teaching and mentoring.

The technology you use doesn’t just contribute to the bottom line. It can also help you achieve and evidence societal good, which benefits your organisation, your staff and your external stakeholders. Get in touch with us at [email protected], and we will show you how.

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