After launching to much fanfare, the Government’s generally welcomed drive to create three-million new apprenticeships by 2020 through a redesign of apprenticeships developed with employers soon became mired in criticism after the Apprenticeship Levy was launched. This was branded by many as simply a tax on business and its swift implementation in April this year left very little time for either consultation or employer acclimatisation.
However, horticultural visionaries saw the benefits straight away of doing something to address the long-bemoaned industry skills crisis and gathered together to form a group of more than 40 employers, eight industry bodies and 18 training and assessment organisations that have worked for the past two-and-a-half years developing Trailblazer Apprenticeship standards so levy payers and others alike could take advantage of the new system as soon as possible.
Horticulture is only in the third pilot group of employers to have their programmes approved by the Department for Education (DfE). Being engaged early on means that horticulture is a bit of a guinea pig in what is a developing system, but it also means the working group has been able to influence policy in its favour.
For example, one key tenet of the new apprenticeships is that they should be like a driving test — rather than students being tested on skills as they go through their apprenticeship, they should be tested on everything all at once at the end. This, the Government judged, would show whether they are work-ready precisely when they are looking for work, rather than possibly forgetting a skill they learnt a year or more ago and have not practiced since.
However, this paradigm does not work for horticulture because of the seasonal nature of the work. Thus the working group argued, with evidence, that some tasks should be judged earlier in the year when they actually needed to be, and could be, undertaken. The DfE took this on board and adapted the rules accordingly.
Influence on development
Adrow director and consultant Ros Burnely facilitated the working group. She says being able to influence the development of the system "has been really amazing for employers in our industry because sometimes we can feel that we’re a bit on the back foot. We’ve had to work really hard with the DfE and the Institute of Apprenticeships."
She adds: "We’re flying a bit blind. We’ve been right at the cutting edge of all industries. We’ve been right at the front of the queue. We’ve had three industry groups developing content and a steering group pulling it all together. Sometimes in horticulture we can think we’re not very good at collaborating. Actually they’ve been very good at collaborating. They’ve done really well."
While many are pioneers, not all colleges offering land-based courses are on board with the new programmes, choosing to play it safe by continuing to offer the old apprenticeships. These will eventually be phased out, although the Government has not given a timescale for this as yet. In the meantime, they are not as well-funded as the new programmes. Many were understandably concerned about not having an examining body in place, says Burnley, something that has now been solved after City & Guilds (C&G) agreed to cover all three.
This is somewhat of a coup, according to Burnley, because the volume horticulture brings is not big business for C&G. But those employers and colleges who do take up the trailblazer baton know that they are offering programmes developed carefully by employers themselves.
The new standards did not gain approval until July. This means that colleges had to do much of their preparation in advance, in the expectation that the new standards would get rubber-stamped, but still had to work quickly over the summer holiday to get their courses ready. "It’s so new there will be teething problems," Burnley admits.
Ground Control national group training manager and BALI technical director Neil Huck knows the system inside out. His company is putting five existing employees through earlier-approved management apprenticeships with the Institute of Management to claim back levy payments and is looking to recruit 20-25 junior apprenticeships next spring for the just developed apprenticeships in the horticulture sector.
"It’s early days," he says. "We’ve applied to become an employer training provider so we can provide training in-house. We’ve got a set-up for training from the company already and it makes sense to use it for apprenticeships."
Huck says he was pleased with the work done by the employer group. "Apprentices will be trained in what we need as a company. The content is what people need to learn to work in the industry. We’ve had lots of positive comments in the last few months. The one are that concerns me is the smaller landscapers, getting them involved."
BALI is looking into the idea of getting consortia of smaller companies together so they can spread the on-the-job training tasks, which could represent an onerous chunk of time for a company of just a few staffers. "It’s just resources," says Huck. "They want to get involved but they’re finding it difficult."
Neither has dealing with the Government been easy. One working group participant describes it as "being stuck in a Kafkaesque loop". Huck says the bureaucracy is a bit slow. "They are still gearing up from what I’ve seen. We are trailblazers so things will develop as we go.
"We’re getting what we need. We cover a broad aspect of the land-based sector, from arboriculture right through to grounds maintenance. It was previously very difficult to find training that would fit that area. The idea is that at the end of a two-year apprenticeship they come out and they can actually work. That’s the big advantage to employers like my company."
Some companies are taking their time to develop a new apprenticeship system they want. For example, idverde has two Trailblazer Apprentices — one horticulture/landscape operative studying at Capel Manor College for two years and an engineering technician with Prospects College of Advanced Technology on a four-year apprenticeship — but is due to launch a full scheme at a later date.
Managing director of Oak View Landscapes and BALI national chairman Paul Downer has taken on two new apprentices recently but says he will be pushed to start them on the trailblazer course before 2018, although Writtle University College has helped him understand the new process. Writtle is launching the new courses a month later than normal, in October, to cope with the short timescale. The timing has "thrown Writtle in at the deep end", but "now is the time to do it because the work is out there. It’s getting the right skill level. A lot of the people moved away from landscaping in the last recession.
"It’s a bit lastminute.com. We could potentially have done it but we decided to do it after their probation. They could decide after six months that landscaping is hard work and they could do something else. I took the decision that rather than try and rush it through I’d rather have a year like this as guinea pigs to sort out all the flaws and problems that will inevitably get thrown up because of the change."
As a smaller enterprise whose turnover is not high enough to pay the levy, Oak View benefits from being able to claim from the levy system without putting in. But Downer says the amount his company is entitled to is only £1,000 a year. "We don’t do it for that — £1,000 doesn’t incentivise me. If there was no financial incentive I would still do it."
He points out that the course structure "looks a lot better", adding: "You can tell it had a lot more employer input. The people coming out will be better for, it I think. The biggest thing to come out of it is employability."
The RHS is not influenced by paying the levy because it already planned to move from 16 to 28 apprentices by 2023 and is also looking for opportunities within the organisation for further learning, according to horticultural courses manager Suzanne Moss. "The Trailblazer Apprenticeships contain a solid programme of horticultural and landscape skills, knowledge and behaviours, which is focused on producing experienced and rounded employees for each pathway," she says.
"The scheme has just got underway and everyone involved has worked hard to make it happen in the short amount of time since its approval. We will be evaluating its impact over the coming year and look forward to taking on more apprentices at our new Bridgewater garden development in Salford, Greater Manchester, in 2019."
The RHS is also currently assessing the possibility of offering a top-up programme for apprentices to its RHS level 2 certificates and pathways onto further study at levels 3 and 4. Employers can either use colleges, training providers or apply to become one themselves.
Abigail Sunasky, an apprentice at Bridgman & Bridgman, was one of the first horticulture and landscaping apprentices to join the new programme, after starting at the company in July. Sunasky had previously done work experience at the firm and asked whether it would be possible to do an apprenticeship with workplace assessments because her nearest college is some distance away. The company consulted long-term partner OnSite Training, which was able to offer this route.
As well as the distance, Bridgman & Bridgman did not feel all the content was relevant in old apprenticeships. "It is good to see that all of the new learning criteria is very up to date with training choices and in line with the needs of the employers," says director Chris Bridgman. "In terms of the learning, being able to much of it on-site is fantastic as well as being able to choose the training provider.
"It is working really well for both Abigail and ourselves, and does not impact too much on the daily business. We appreciate the support from OnSite, who can offer the learning that we are unable to do in-house. We get lots of support from OnSite Training with monthly meetings between all parties, OnSite also provides a trainer that can assist in the areas we are unable to cover and further training such as PA1 and EFAW.
He adds: "We are not in the bracket that has to pay the levy but because of this we do not have any access to the training funds until at least 2018, which is £5,000 to spend on training for Abigail that includes the assessment fees. We also receive an additional £1,000 as Abigail is between 16 and 18 years old." The extra money did not influence the decision to engage an apprentice, says Bridgman. "We as a company need to do this, as do many others, to overcome the looming skills shortage. The flexibility to choose training providers has helped and we are keen to keep offering apprenticeships."
What are the new Trailblazer Apprenticeships?
- Horticulture and landscape operative.
- Arborist operative.
- Forestry operative.
- Horticulture and landscape supervisor (very close to approval).
Who pays the apprentice levy?
- Companies with an annual salary bill of more than £3m pay at a rate of 0.5%. This is subject to a £15,000 allowance that can only be spent on approved apprenticeship training, plus some costs.