Series: Five pointers for great apprenticeships in 2019

It’s the elusive question that so many employers want answered before they commit to an apprenticeship programme – what does a really good apprenticeship look like? Stefano Capaldo, Group Managing Director at digital apprenticeship provider Firebrand Training, has five key suggestions from his experiences in 2018 to help employers work out how apprenticeships can deliver the results they want for their business.

Pointer 1: Taking time to understand what good looks like

The changes made to apprenticeships in 2016 and 2017 have had a fundamental impact on training providers’ relationships with employers. Most direct funding was removed and the Levy introduced, meaning providers now need to secure contracts with multiple Levy-paying employers to sustain a similar level of apprenticeship income. Alongside this, framework programmes are being replaced by standards, requiring significant adjustments to planning, delivery and assessment even for apprenticeship veterans on both sides of the relationship.

The immediate reaction to these circumstances was a heightened sense of urgency on both sides. Providers felt pressure to gain starts from as many employers as possible to replace reductions in their direct funding. Employers felt compelled to move to standards to future-proof their apprenticeship programmes. Speed thus became the most important driver of the market, with the providers who approached employers quickest and promised the fastest results gaining the greatest share of starts.

A scramble to get results – and a failure to deliver them

However, the rush to establish this new order meant the time spent on planning programmes was cut to the bone. Providers were too keen to capitalise on their new relationships, meaning apprenticeship standards were started before all the content was available – or even planned. Employers trusted providers to know what they were delivering and didn’t always ask to see a full curriculum for the standard, or explore how it mapped to the requirements of the apprenticeship.

The losers in this situation are, of course, the apprentices. In our conversations with EPA providers and employers, we have heard of apprentices forced to withdraw halfway through their course because the provider was unable to deliver a specific element. Others have completed their course only to fail EPA because they were unable to demonstrate many of the required skills in their day-to-day activity. This not only reduces apprentices’ and employers’ trust in providers, but jeopardises the whole future of apprenticeship programmes. If employers see no return on their apprenticeship investment due to poorly planned delivery, why would they continue to invest?

Prioritising quality over speed

In 2019, both sides of this equation – employers and providers – need to slow down and focus on making sure apprenticeship delivery is fit for purpose before it begins. While it may take more time to set up, the number of delivery issues will decrease and apprentice morale, productivity and business engagement will increase significantly.

Employers need to:

  • Review a provider’s offer end-to-end to ensure it covers every element of the standard. Providers should be able to show you how their proposed training maps to all requirements the apprentice must meet. Don’t engage until you’re confident apprentices will receive all necessary learning.
  • Ask for a clear overview of the apprentice’s journey, including the timings of training and how off-the-job requirements will be covered each month. This not only reassures you there is a structure in place, but allows you to ask questions if specific deliverables aren’t met.
  • Rely much less heavily on previous achievement rates. There is simply not enough legacy data on apprenticeship standard achievement – particularly for the newer or more niche standards – to make pass percentages a reliable comparator between providers.
  • Weigh up the validity of a good Ofsted grade. Many long-term providers who delivered as subcontractors before the Register for Apprenticeship Training Providers was introduced in 2017 will have the experience and flexibility you want, but may not yet have received a full inspection. Additionally, companies with an Ofsted grade may not have been inspected after they began delivering apprenticeship standards, so be ready to ask for more details of their delivery history.
  • Remember that providers can’t deliver apprenticeship standards in a vacuum. Standards are designed as employer-led qualifications, meaning employers set the guidelines for whether an apprentice meets their own expectations of knowledge, skills and behaviour in a role. The best standards programmes occur where the employer delivers structured, specific support to the apprentice alongside formal learning and guidance for the provider.


Providers need to:

  • Remember that under the new guidelines, employers are the customer, not apprentices. They are paying for a specific service and have every right to shape that service to meet their requirements.
  • Manage employers’ expectations, particularly when transitioning from an existing framework-based programme to using standards. These require a higher level of employer input in the design of the programme, and in supporting apprentices by providing (and recording) opportunities to demonstrate their new knowledge and skills.
  • Monitor resources closely. Do your tutors and assessors have capacity for more apprentices? Can your recruitment, enrolment and administration teams manage an upsurge in demand? Do you have a plan to recruit additional staff if you exceed a certain level?


Delivered well, apprenticeships remain an excellent tool to build the skills businesses want, exactly as they want them. These actions will allow employers and providers to build trust and transparency, confident that everyone understands and can deliver the elements needed for apprentices to succeed. It’s on such trust that we will establish a market that delivers the results apprentices deserve and contributes to reducing skills gaps across UK plc.


Pointer 2: Digital capability is no longer ‘just’ for IT employees - to be published next week.


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