Bright start: reviewing a decade of Whitehall apprentices
As the civil service apprenticeships drive moves up a gear, Cabinet Office early talent manager Kimberley Adderley looks back on a decade of progress with Whitehall veteran Ian Watmore
They are the future The first intake of young people to enrol in the Civil Service Fast Track Apprenticeship Scheme, in 2013
I joined the civil service almost 10 years ago, working in HM Courts Service. In London, another woman was also joining the civil service and, in the process, making Whitehall history. Marzena Bujalska was one of the first modern apprentices to join the civil service, recruited in 2008 by then permanent secretary for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), Ian Watmore.
Today, the government employs hundreds of apprentices, and departments are committed to steadily increasing this number to meet a target of at least 30,000 apprenticeship starts – that is, people starting an apprenticeship in the civil service – by 2020. But the journey from those first few apprentices to the current plans has not been plain sailing. Rather, it has been a lesson in the importance of committed and persistent leadership to drive through changes that will have a lasting, positive impact on both government and the society it serves.
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In 2007, incoming prime minister Gordon Brown created DIUS with a central aim of bringing about a sea change in how skills, particularly apprenticeships, were seen by industry, business and the public sector. At the time, the public sector as a whole directly employed around 20% of the national workforce but provided fewer than 10% of apprenticeship places. Secretary of state John Denham and his perm sec Watmore decided that they should not just be talking about apprenticeships in a policy sense, but applying that policy to their own department, even their own teams.
So they set about recruiting an apprentice into DIUS, and found it was not a straightforward process.
“The biggest difficulty had already been overcome,” recalls Watmore, who would go on to become a champion of apprenticeships in government, especially in his most recent role as first civil service commissioner. “There was strong commitment from the permanent secretary and secretary of state – which was not universal across government at that time,” he says.
“But there were three other significant challenges: what do we mean by an apprenticeship in the civil service? How do we actually recruit somebody into that apprenticeship, and how do we make this work within the recruitment rules set by the civil service commissioners?
“At the time the rules did not readily allow a department to go and recruit specially for someone with an apprenticeship in mind. It was not seen as open, fair, and meritocratic.”
So how did Watmore’s team overcome these challenges? “We decided on a business administration apprenticeship and [worked out] what that meant in the civil service context,” he explains. “We then constructed a specific form of recruitment and networked with jobcentres and people in the apprenticeship service who were targeting pools of likely recruits, and we agreed a specific route with the civil service commissioners, using an ‘exception’ that’s now baked into the recruitment principles.”
The successful applicant for DIUS’ first apprenticeship recruitment campaign was Bujalska, who joined Watmore’s private office . “Next, we recruited another apprentice for Denham’s office and then Ed Balls asked for an apprentice in the Department for Children, Schools and Families,” Watmore says. “It started to become a bit of a snowball, though quite a small snowball.”
The snowball may have been rolling, but the next 10 years were not a smooth journey. Just three years later, in 2011, an informal survey carried out by Civil Service World showed that departments were not as supportive of apprenticeship schemes as they once were. The abolition of targets for departmental apprentices, combined with major departmental reorganisations and budget reductions, meant the number of civil service places appeared to be in decline. Research by CSW identified about 1,300 apprenticeship places planned for 2011-12, compared with nearly 3,000 undertaken in 2009-10.
In 2013, however, the policy received a new boost with the launch of the Civil Service Fast Track apprenticeship programme. This scheme offers a springboard into a government career and the opportunity to complete a Level 4 qualification in business and professional administration. The next few years also saw the launch of digital and technology, commercial, finance and project delivery apprenticeships; their addition means that the apprenticeship programmes collectively now cover all the priority areas identified in the civil service capabilities plan.
The momentum continued to grow. In 2015, the Civil Service Talent Action Plan committed to double the amount of apprenticeships begun in that year. By 2017, the Civil Service Apprenticeship Strategy set out plans to create at least 30,000 apprenticeship starts in the civil service by 2020. To meet this, departments agreed to ensure that 2.3% of their workforce in England would be apprenticeship starters each year, with a similar level of growth in the wider UK home civil service workforce outside England. Their commitment to this policy is demonstrated in the creative thinking that I have seen as leaders plan how they will meet this target. Departments cannot simply recruit thousands of new apprentices each year, so many are considering how they can offer apprenticeships to existing staff, or looking at higher-level apprenticeships for more senior grades.
Watmore looks back on the story of modern civil service apprenticeships as “a bit of a case study of how, if you start small and think big you can create real change in the system”. But he admits “it does take a lengthy amount of time to happen”.
“Ten years ago there was limited interest in doing this and now it’s seen as a really important part of the civil service becoming a better and more representative service to the public,” he says.
His comments echo the words of Sir Jeremy Heywood, head of the civil service, who in 2015 wrote in a blog that apprenticeships were key to achieving one of his top priorities – attracting talent from as wide a pool as possible to build “a diverse civil service that better reflects the society we serve”.
So there is strong official support for the apprenticeships agenda, and Watmore also believes the agenda has now become apolitical, with support from ministers in many governments. “The journey started for me under a Labour government but the coalition, in 2010, seized on it and took it to the next stage. When I was in Scotland, for Civil Service Live, it was clear that the Scottish government is a big employer of apprentices as well, and I’m sure it’s true in Wales and Northern Ireland. I think, almost regardless of where the political power lies now, it seems to be recognised universally as an important piece of work.”
When asked what he would like to see for civil service apprenticeships in the future, Watmore says he hopes this momentum will become permanent. “I’d like to see them remain a mainstream way of attracting talent to the civil service,” he says, adding that he also hopes this will change external perceptions as well: “I’d also like the civil service to be recognised as one of the great employers of apprentices, which it possibly isn’t at the moment. We should be making sure society at large recognises what the civil service has done, is doing, and will do for apprentices, and why the civil service is better as a result.”
He gives two ways in which the civil service benefits, one corporate the other less so. “It enhances the skill base of the civil service, but there is also a purely human element – it gives life chances to people who otherwise might struggle in some situations,” he says.
“Of course not everyone that does an apprenticeship comes from a difficult background but quite a significant number do and it gives them an opportunity to thrive. That is good for them as individuals but also good for any government to be seen to be putting its weight behind trying to help people through its own direct levers of power: to help people achieve what they can achieve and be what they can be.”
I hope we continue with the same momentum and focus that there has been on apprenticeships over the last few years. Building strong apprenticeship programmes across government may be challenging at times, but those challenges must be set against the upsides. We can all agree that government will benefit from a competent, qualified and professional workforce – and apprenticeships can help to build those critical skills that the civil service needs for the future.
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